Reagans say thanks at hospital reunion Couple, hospital staff recall events of 1981

March 29, 1991|By John Fairhall | John Fairhall,Evening Sun Staff

WASHINGTON -- Nancy Reagan wore a pink suit and a look of distress as she recalled the attempted assassination of her husband on March 30, 1981.

With a bullet in his chest fired by John W. Hinckley Jr., Presiden Reagan was rushed to George Washington University Hospital. The critical nature of his wound initially was kept secret by the doctors and Mrs. Reagan. Both of the Reagans were present at George Washington University yesterday during an emotional ceremony commemorating the event, and the former first lady spoke of the subterfuge.

"I think there was a kind of unspoken agreement that none of u would let the public know how serious it was and how close we came to losing him," she said in a halting voice, addressing hospital staff who treated her husband. "I know. You know."

"I'm so grateful to you because I was afraid . . . I was so afrai that I would leave this hospital alone and . . . and when we did leave, the doctor said to me, 'You know he could be leaving here under different circumstances,' and I said, 'Yes, I know.' And I want to thank you publicly now." The audience greeted her with thunderous applause. University officials unveiled a brass plaque, praising her "courage, strength and dignity at the side of her gravely wounded husband," which will be mounted in the emergency room.

Her speech was one of several emotional moments in th hour-long ceremony which reunited the Reagans with the doctors, nurses and technicians who saved his life 10 years ago. Also present were James Brady, Reagan's press secretary, who was shot in the head and permanently disabled by Hinckley, and Brady's wife Sarah.

When Brady was acknowledged, Reagan stood and gave him thumbs-up.

The university brought them together ostensibly to honor the medical staff and the Reagans, by awarding him an honorary doctorate of public service, dedicating the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine and presenting the plaque to Mrs. Reagan. But the event also re-created much of the drama and horror of the assassination attempt.

University President Stephen J. Trachtenberg recounted th history step by step and recalled how Reagan asked him months ago if he could meet the nurse who held his hand in the recovery room following surgery. He wanted to tell her " 'how much this meant to me,' " Trachtenberg said.

At that point, nurse Denise Sullivan, clad in a white hospital coat rose from her seat and greeted Reagan onstage at the Lisner auditorium. They embraced to a roomful of applause.

There were humorous moments as well, as when Trachtenber described how in the recovery room Reagan could hardly be stopped from talking and telling jokes.

Trachtenberg said one of the nurses trying to get him to rest finally had to tell him, "'Mr. President, with all respect, when I put this cloth on your eyes it means I want you to shut up.'"

Reagan generated the most laughs, however. Looking fit at ag 80, he reminded everyone why he was called the "great communicator" with a speech that began: "As Henry VIII said to each of his six wives, I won't keep you long."

"First of all I must admit I was a little worried when my staff tol me that GW wanted me back on the 10th anniversary of my care here," Reagan said to more laughter.

"At first I thought maybe it was for a 10-year checkup, but my doctors in L.A. told me there was no such thing. Then, I wondered it if had something to do with my hospital bill. I could only imagine the interest on a decade-old bill. But I was all prepared to plead my case. I have recently lost my job, and before that I was living in public housing for eight years."

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