At The Edge Of Death

On March 30, Ronald Reagan's schedule called for him to return to the hotel where, seventy days before, he had clicked his heels and saluted himself as President of the United States. He had a speech to deliver after lunch to the Building Trades Council of the AFL-CIO. Without knowing why--some instinct against offending blue-collar sensibilities, perhaps?--he took off his usual Corum gold watch, and exchanged it for one that was older and cheaper.

Reagan's speech at the Washington Hilton was an uninspired appeal for support of his budget proposals. He got just enough applause to satisfy him, and left the hotel at 2:25 p.m., stepping through a side door into gray, damp afternoon light. The usual retinue accompanied him: his doctor, a senior aide (Michael Deaver), three or four Secret Service agents, and James Brady, Press Secretary to the President, a fuzzy bear of a man loping a yard or two behind. The usual motorcade awaited in the hotel's curveway, not more than thirteen feet ahead, engines humming; the usual little knot of press and onlookers stood to his left, restrained by the usual cops.

What was not usual was a fluttering, cracking noise in the crowd as he raised his arm to wave. A force like a battering ram shoved him forward, and he found himself hurtling through the open door of the presidential limousine. (He thought he caught a glimpse, as he passed the window, of a blond bystander crouched in police-pistol style, spraying bullets: two zinged against the metal and bulletproof glass around him.) He hit his head on the doorjamb and fell onto the car's transmission hump, so violently that his upper back was almost paralyzed with pain. "Haul ass!" a voice in his ear shouted. "Let's get out of here!"

Now it was the car that was moving, accelerating down the slope of Connecticut Avenue back toward the White House. The way was clear, because the avenue was already cordoned off. In seconds they were traveling at sixty miles an hour. Reagan realized that the heavy body lying on him was that of Jerry Parr, his White House security chief. "Jerry, get off, I think you've broken one of my ribs," he managed to say, but then pain choked his voice, and blood began to cough from his lungs. He assumed, as did Parr, that he had spiked himself internally. Neither of them yet knew that six bullets fired in less than two seconds had hit four people outside the Hilton; that James Brady was on the sidewalk with a shattered skull; and that one of the bullets was now lying within an inch of Reagan's heart. It was a .22 "Devastator," designed to explode on impact. Missing flesh at first, the slug had hit his car's armored right-rear panel and forged itself into a tiny, high-speed circular saw blade, spinning into his chest with such surgical precision that Parr, feeling him all over, detected no sign of entry.

"Rawhide not hurt," Parr radioed to an agent in the car behind, using the President's code name. He was deliberately lying, to mislead eavesdroppers on the Secret Service frequency. "Let's hustle," he added, hoping that his colleague would sense that Rawhide was, on the contrary, hurt quite badly. The blood Parr saw, bright and frothy, frightened him enough to redirect the motorcade along Seventeenth Street, then west to George Washington University Hospital.

Reagan, ashen-faced, was by now having difficulty breathing. He made himself get out and walk toward the emergency-room door. Parr offered no help, sensing that it was important to him to cover the fifteen yards alone. Just inside, out of public sight, the President's knees buckled and his eyes rolled up.

He remained conscious enough to feel himself being caught up, carried, laid on a cart, and stripped. His lungs could not take in enough air; he was afraid of suffocating. A voice cried, "Let's get some oxygen into him." He could not move under the mask they clamped on his face. His vision tunneled: all he could see above the mask's bulge was a white tiled ceiling. He did not know that he was losing blood internally, at such a rate that his systolic pressure dropped by half. Yet his obstinate heart continued to beat, lowering the pressure still further, until his brain was at the point of drought.

By now it was clear that one intravenous line was not going to be enough to save his life: packed red-blood cells and fluid would have to be sloshed into him through three more arterial lines that were not so much conduits as canals. Only when a nurse lifted his left arm to insert one did the neat slit on the side of his chest manifest itself. "Oh-oh, he's been shot."

Earlier, when the white phone rang on the emergency-room desk, signifying a White House "extreme response" alert, a voice had said, without elaboration, "The Presidential motorcade is en route to your facility." Reagan's car had arrived so quickly that the sound of beepers paging senior staff physicians mixed with the wail of sirens outside. Trauma teams had one fully equipped bay ready for the President, while another was set up for James Brady, coming separately by ambulance. Yet another awaited Timothy McCarthy, a Secret Service agent shot in the chest. Walkie-talkie messages advised that the blond bystander's fourth victim, a Washington policeman, was being treated elsewhere for a bullet to the spine.

All of this urgency built up into a sort of audiovisual montage around Reagan, more multilayered than he could register. Compounding it was a huge influx of agents from the White House and the FBI, many of them waving guns. Jerry Parr blocked off a protective "perimeter" around the emergency area, while waves of panic and grief eddied outward into the drizzle. The Department of Defense sent out a worldwide advisory, raising crisis readiness one notch.

Four men mown down in less than two seconds by a person impossible to see either before or after the chattering explosions; rain; ricochets; a mad scrimmage; yet within all the chaos, an accidental geometry so precise as to bring Reagan to the edge of death. We had no idea how close the President actually came to dying that afternoon. The fact that he lost 3,500 cubic centimeters of blood--well over half his total supply--was suppressed for a long time. So was another, literally chilling detail: some of the replacement packs pumped into him had not been warmed enough after refrigeration. Ultimately, he traded half of his own fresh blood for the staler, cooler contributions of strangers--a major physiological insult from which he would never entirely recover.

Joseph Giordano, head of the ER trauma team, inserted two chest tubes to relieve the pressure in Reagan's pleural cavity. But blood continued to gush. An X-ray showed the Devastator floating palely behind the heart shadow. Or was it actually in it? At first, not even Dr. Benjamin Aaron, the hospital's senior thoracic surgeon, could tell. He inferred, however, that the bullet had been deflected by a rib and "expressed" through some major vascular structure. It would have to be removed to stop the bleeding, which was now a steady and lethal 300 cc. per quarter hour. That meant an immediate thoracotomy. After fifty minutes in the trauma unit, the President was wheeled to Operating Room 2, Nancy holding his hand.

Notwithstanding his failure to remember the ensuing hours, he was already coming back from the edge, with systolic pressure reverted to 120 and, incredibly, his wit intact. The little jokes Ronald Reagan perpetrated, through blood-caked lips, before lapsing into unconsciousness have become part of American legend: "Honey, I forgot to duck."

The operation, beginning at 3:24 p.m., was not easy. "It took me forty minutes to get through that chest," Dr. Aaron told Deaver. "I have never in my life seen a chest like that on a man his age." Another quarter hour was spent feeling for the bullet, which lay so deep in lung tissue that it had to be tracked with a catheter and squeezed out like a tiddlywink. Bleeding soon stopped. The President's chest was closed at 5:20 p.m. He had "sailed through" surgery, the hospital announced, and was an "excellent physical specimen."

Reagan's recovery, unlike that of the brain-damaged Brady, was instantaneous. (News of the other victims was kept from him, to avoid complicating his emotions.) Regaining consciousness at 7:30, he was unable to continue joking aloud, because tubes crammed his nose and throat. So he reverted to weak scribbles on pink paper:

He was able to speak again when aides visited him the following morning, March 31--"I should have known I wasn't going to avoid a staff meeting"--and he signed a bill they had brought, to demonstrate that he still was President of the United States. Four nights after the operation, however, Reagan developed a mysterious fever, and on April 4 began to bring up fresh blood. Renewed terror spread through the West Wing: his doctors could not diagnose what was wrong. He proceeded to heal himself, with the help of broad-spectrum antibiotics, over the course of the next week. On April 11, the President was well enough to walk out of the hospital on his wife's arm, with Jerry Parr again behind him, as nurses clapped and cried. The entire White House staff was waiting for him in the Rose Garden, under light spring rain.

"I know it's going to be a long recovery," he wrote on his first evening back in the White House. "Whatever happens now I owe my life to God and will try to serve him every way I can."