In Trauma Room 1 with JFK

SUN JOURNAL

Assassination: A neurosurgeon who examined the mortally wounded president writes for the first time his memories of that day in Dallas.

November 21, 2003|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

After 40 years it has become a tired truism that anyone old enough to remember the assassination of President John F. Kennedy can remember clearly where they were and what they were doing when they first heard the news from Dallas.

For Dr. Robert G. Grossman, this "flashbulb" is not just a vivid personal recollection. It is one of acute professional and historical significance.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Grossman was a 30-year-old neurosurgeon in Dallas. He had been on the staff at Parkland Hospital there for just five months when a telephone call - which he and his colleagues at first suspected was a particularly bad joke - summoned them to Parkland's Trauma Room 1.

President Kennedy, they were told, had been shot.

In the decades since, he has rarely spoken about what he saw in that room. He never wrote down his recollections. And to his surprise, the Warren Commission, which investigated the assassination, never called him to add his testimony to that of others who were there.

Grossman is 70 now and chairman of neurosurgery at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. And in the interests of history and medicine, he has finally shared his recollections as part of a series of three articles in the journal Neurosurgery exploring the "neuroforensics" of the Kennedy assassination.

The articles are co-written by Daniel Sullivan and Rodrick Faccio, both of the Keck School of Medicine at the University of Southern California; and Dr. Michael L. Levy, of Children's Hospital in San Diego.

"The goal of this series of reports," the authors say, "is to establish a reasonable hypothesis regarding the pathological mechanisms that killed President Kennedy."

Grossman, now the father of three and grandfather of eight, conceded in a telephone interview with The Sun that memory "is a very tricky thing."

He now regrets his failure to record his observations at the time. "I was just too shocked," he says. "Many of the people who were there wanted to put it behind them. It was a horrible experience, and I didn't think I could really add anything."

He is nevertheless confident about his recollections. "I think something like that is so dramatic that the things you remember, you remember accurately," he says.

As Grossman and fellow neurosurgeon Kemp Clark, then 38, made their way to Parkland's trauma center across a parking lot from their lab at the Southwestern Medical School, the confusion of police cars and limousines at the ambulance dock told them this was no prank. Their walk became a sprint.

When they entered Trauma Room 1, Kennedy was making some "gasping breaths," Grossman says. The room was already crowded with doctors. One had performed a tracheotomy, inserting a breathing tube through an opening in Kennedy's neck that incorporated a small bullet hole - the exit wound from the first shot, which struck Kennedy in the upper back, according to the Warren Commission.

"Mrs. Kennedy was standing against the wall, on the left side of the President, toward his feet," Grossman says in Neurosurgery. "Her face was very white and she appeared to have been crying. She was wearing a light-colored dress. The lap of her dress was covered with blood and brain tissue."

Grossman and Clark made the first examination of Kennedy's head wounds. "You could see he had a head wound, but I don't think anyone really understood its dimensions," he told The Sun. "So Dr. Clark and I went to the head of the table and picked his head up."

"He had very thick, brushy hair," Grossman recalls. Parting it, "you could see the bone was blasted outwards by a bullet coming out." In fact, the right side of the president's skull, just above the ear, opened upward like a hinged door, 4 inches wide and 2 inches high.

The hole was filled with badly damaged brain tissue. "I think it was obvious to everyone who saw the wound that this was not a recoverable wound," Grossman says. "He might have lived for two hours or two days. But he certainly would never have recovered."

Lifting Kennedy's head higher, Grossman and Clark saw a small wound about an inch in diameter on the upper part of the back of his head, just to the right of the midline. It, too, was filled with damaged brain tissue.

"My conclusion was that he had been shot in the back of the head, and the bullet blasted out the right posterior parietal area."

Grossman had seen a number of head wounds caused by handguns during his time at Parkland, but never one caused by a bullet with this kind of power.

"It was clearly not a pistol," he says. "This was such a huge injury, it clearly had to be a bullet traveling at a much higher velocity. I don't think you could tell what angle it was shot at, but it was definitely from the rear and definitely a rifle."

The other physicians in the room, meanwhile, were struggling to keep Kennedy alive. They could feel no pulse, and the electrocardiogram showed no organized electrical activity in his heart.

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