Monday Morning Breslin

Giant thanks to Ramsey, who’s typing up old Jimmy Breslin stuff so we all may share. He brings up a good suggestion, btw: “I’d like to see more people doing this. That is, finding things that exist in print, only in print, only hardcopy, and getting them onto the web. I think we’ve lost a lot when we went digital. That is, I don’t think we’ve taken enough with us yet. There are tons of great magazine and newspaper stories that simply can’t be found on Nexis or in the web archives. And I know people have them. (Or maybe they don’t. Maybe I’m imagining this.) If they are out there, we should find a way to share them.”

Any ideas?

A Death in Emergency Room One
By Jimmy Breslin
New York Herald Tribune
November 24, 1963

DALLAS — The call bothered Malcolm Perry. “Dr. Tom Shires, STAT,” the girl’s voice said over the page in the doctor’s cafeteria at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The “STAT” meant emergency. Nobody ever called Tom Shires, the hospital’s chief resident in surgery, for an emergency. And Shires, Perry’s superior, was out of town for the day. Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

“This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,” he said.

“President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,” the operator said. “They are bringing him into the emergency room now.”

Perry hung up and walked quickly out of the cafeteria and down a flight of stairs and pushed through a brown door and a nurse pointed to Emergency Room One, and Dr. Perry walked into it. The room is narrow and has gray tiled walls and a cream-colored ceiling. In the middle of it, on an aluminum hospital cart, the President of the United States had been placed on his back and he was dying while a huge lamp glared in his face.

John Kennedy had already been stripped of his jacket, shirt, and T-shirt, and a staff doctor was starting to place a tube called an endotracht down the throat. Oxygen would be forced down the endotracht. Breathing was the first thing to attack. The President was not breathing.

Malcolm Perry unbuttoned his dark blue glen-plaid jacket and threw it onto the floor. He held out his hands while the nurse helped him put on gloves.

The President, Perry thought. He’s bigger than I thought he was.

He noticed the tall, dark-haired girl in the plum dress that had her husband’s blood all over the front of the skirt. She was standing out of the way, over against the gray tile wall. Her face was tearless and it was set, and it was to stay that way because Jacqueline Kennedy, with a terrible discipline, was not going to take her eyes from her husband’s face.

Then Malcolm Perry stepped up to the aluminum hospital cart and took charge of the hopeless job of trying to keep the thirty-fifth President of the United States from death. And now, the enormousness came over him.

Here is the most important man in the world, Perry thought.

The chest was not moving. And there was no apparent heartbeat inside. The wound in the throat was small and neat. Blood was running out of it. It was running out too fast. The occipitoparietal, which is a part of the back of the head, had a huge flap. The damage a .25-caliber bullet does as it comes out of a person’s body is unbelievable. Bleeding from the head wound covered the floor.

There was a mediastinal wound in connection with the bullet hole in the throat. This means air and blood were being packed together in the chest. Perry called for a scalpel. He was going to start a tracheotomy, which is opening the throat and inserting a tube into the windpipe. The incision had to be made below the bullet wound.

“Get me Doctors Clark, McCelland, and Baxter right away,” Malcolm Perry said.

Then he started the tracheotomy. There was no anesthesia. John Kennedy could feel nothing now. The wound in the back of the head told Dr. Perry that the President never knew a thing about it when he was shot, either.

While Perry worked on the throat, he said quietly, “Will somebody put a right chest tube in, please.”

The tube was to be inserted so it could suction out the blood and air packed in the chest and prevent the lung from collapsing.

These things he was doing took only small minutes, and other doctors and nurses were in the room and talking and moving, but Perry does not remember them. He saw only the throat and chest, shining under the huge lamp, and when he would look up or move his eyes between motions, he would see this plum dress and the terribly disciplined face standing over against the gray tile wall.

Just as he finished the tracheotomy, Malcolm Perry looked up and Dr. Kemp Clark, chief neurosurgeon in residency at Parkland, came in through the door. Clark was looking at the President of the United States. Then he looked at Malcolm Perry and the look told Malcolm Perry something he already knew. There was no way to save the patient.

“Would you like to leave, ma’am?” Kemp Clark said to Jacqueline Kennedy. “We can make you more comfortable outside.”

Just the lips moved. “No,” Jacqueline Kennedy said.

Now, Malcolm Perry’s long fingers ran over the chest under him and he tried to get a heartbeat, and even the suggestion of breathing, and there was nothing. There was only the still body, pale white in the light, and it kept bleeding, and now Malcolm Perry started to call for things and move his hands quickly because it was all running out.

He began to massage the chest. He had to do something to stimulate the heart. There was not time to open the chest and take the heart in his hands, so he had to massage on the surface. The aluminum cart was high. It was too high. Perry was up on his toes so he could have leverage.

“Will somebody please get me a stool,” he said.

One was placed under him. He sat on it, and for ten minutes he massaged the chest. Over in the corner of the room, Dr. Kemp Clark kept watching the electrocardiogram for some sign that the massaging was creating action in the President’s heart. There was none. Dr. Clark turned his head from the electrocardiogram.

“It’s too late, Mac,” he said to Malcolm Perry.

The long fingers stopped massaging and they were lifted from the white chest. Perry got off the stool and stepped back.

Dr. M.T. Jenkins, who had been working the oxygen flow, reached down from the head of the aluminum cart. He took the edges of a white sheet in his hands. He pulled the sheet up over the face of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. The IBM clock on the wall said it was 1 p.m. The date was November 22, 1963.

Three policemen were moving down the hall outside Emergency Room One now, and they were calling to everybody to get out of the way. But this was not needed, because everybody stepped out of the way automatically when they saw the priest who was behind the police. His name was the Reverend Oscar Huber, a small seventy-year-old man who was walking quickly.

Malcolm Perry turned to leave the room as Father Huber came in. Perry remembers seeing the priest go by him. And he remembers his eyes seeing that plum dress and that terribly disciplined face for the last time as he walked out of Emergency Room One and slumped into a chair in the hall.

Everything that was inside that room now belonged to Jacqueline Kennedy and Father Oscar Huber and the things in which they believe.

“I’m sorry. You have me deepest sympathies,” Father Huber said.

“Thank you,” Jacqueline Kennedy said.

Father Huber pulled the white sheet down so he could anoint the forehead of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Jacqueline Kennedy was standing beside the priest, her head bowed, he hands clasped across the front of her plum dress that was stained with blood which came from her husband’s head. Now this old priest held up his right hand and he began the chant that Roman Catholic priests have said over their dead for centuries.

“Si vivis, ego te absolvo a peccatis tuis. In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti, amen.”

The prayer said, “If you are living, I absolve you from your sins. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, amen.”

The priest reached into his pocket and took out a small vial of holy oil. He put the oil on his right thumb and made a cross on President Kennedy’s forehead. Then he blessed the body again and started to pray quietly.

“Eternal rest grant unto him, O Lord,” Father Huber said.

“And let perpetual light shine upon him,” Jacqueline Kennedy answered. She did not cry.

Father Huber prayed like this for fifteen minutes. And for fifteen minutes Jacqueline Kennedy kept praying aloud with him. Her voice did not waver. She did not cry. From the moment a bullet hit her husband in the head and he went down onto his face in the back of the car on the street in Dallas, there was something about this woman that everybody who saw her keeps talking about. She was in shock. But somewhere, down under that shock some place, she seemed to know that there is a way to act when the President of the United States has been assassinated. She was going to act that way, and the fact that the President was her husband only made it more important that she stand and look at him and not cry.

When he was finished praying, Father Huber turned and took her hand. “I am shocked,” he said.

“Thank you for taking care of the President,” Jacqueline Kennedy said.

“I am convinced that his soul had not left his body,” Father Huber said. “This was a valid last sacrament.”

“Thank you,” she said.

Then he left. He had been eating lunch at his rectory at Holy Trinity Church when he heard the news. He had an assistant drive to the hospital immediately. After that, everything happened quickly and he did not feel anything until later. He sat behind his desk in the rectory, and the magnitude of what had happened came over him.

“I’ve been a priest for thirty-two years,” Father Huber said. “The first time I was present at a death? A long time ago. Back in my home in Perryville, Missouri, I attended a lady who was dying of pneumonia. She was in her own bed. But I remember that. But this. This is different. Oh, it isn’t the blood. You see, I’ve anointed so many. Accident victims. I anointed once a boy who was only in pieces. No, it wasn’t the blood. It was the enormity of it. I’m just starting to realize it now.”

Then Father Huber showed you to the door. He was going to say prayers.

It came the same way to Malcolm Perry. When the day was through, he drove to his home in the Walnut Hills section. When he walked into the house, his daughter, Jolene, six and a half, ran up to him. She had papers from school in her hand.

“Look what I did today in school, Daddy,” she said.

She made her father sit down in a chair and look at her schoolwork. The papers were covered with block letters and numbers. Perry looked at them. He thought they were good. He said so, and his daughter chattered happily. Malcolm, his three-year-old son, ran into the room after him, and Perry started to reach for him.

Then it hit him. He dropped the papers with the block numbers and letters and he did not notice his son.

“I’m tired,” he said to his wife, Jennine. “I’ve never been tired like this in my life.”

Tired is the only way one felt in Dallas yesterday. Tired and confused and wondering why it was that everything looked so different. This was a bright Texas day with a snap to the air, and there were cars on the streets and people on the sidewalks. But everything seemed unreal.

At 10 a.m. we dodged cars and went out and stood in the middle lane of Elm Street, just before the second street light; right where the road goes down and, twenty yards further, starts to turn to go under the overpass. It was right at this spot, right where this long crack ran through the gray Texas asphalt, that the bullets reached President Kennedy’s car.

Right up the little hill, and towering over you, was the building. Once it was dull red brick. But that was a long time ago when it housed the J.W. Deere Plow Company. It has been sandblasted since and now the bricks are a light rust color. The windows on the first three floors are covered by closed venetian blinds, but the windows on the other floors are bare. Bare and dust-streaked and high. Factory-window high. The ugly kind of factory window. Particularly at the corner window on the sixth floor, the one where this Oswald and his scrambled egg of a mind stood with the rifle so he could kill the President.

You stood and memorized the spot. It is just another roadway in a city, but now it joins Ford’s Theatre in the history of this nation.

“R.L. Thornton Freeway. Keep Right,” the sign said. “Stemmons Freeway. Keep Right,” another sign said. You went back between the cars and stood on a grassy hill which overlooks the road. A red convertible turned onto Elm Street and went down the hill. It went past the spot with the crack in the asphalt and then, with every foot it went, you could see that it was getting out of range of the sixth-floor window of this rust-brick building behind you. A couple of yards. That’s all John Kennedy needed on this road Friday.

But he did not get them. So when a little bit after 1 o’clock Friday afternoon the phone rang in the Oneal Funeral Home, 3206 Oak Lawn, Vernon B. Oneal answered.

The voice on the other end spoke quickly. “This is the Secret Service calling from Parkland Hospital,” it said. “Please select the best casket in your house and put it in a general coach and arrange for a police escort and bring it here to the hospital as quickly as you humanly can. It is for the President of the United States. Thank you.”

The voice went off the phone. Oneal called for Ray Gleason, his bookkeeper, and a workman to help him take a solid bronze casket out of the place and load it onto a hearse. It was for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

Yesterday, Oneal left his shop early. He said he was too tired to work.

Malcolm Perry was at the hospital. He had on a blue suit and a dark blue striped tie and he sat in a big conference room and looked out the window. He is a tall, reddish-haired thirty-four-year-old, who understands that everything he saw or heard on Friday is a part of history, and he is trying to get down, for the record, everything he knows about the death of the thirty-fifth President of the United States.

“I never saw a President before,” he said.

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5 thoughts on “Monday Morning Breslin

  1. This item ran in our paper today:

    DALLAS (AP) — Dr. Malcolm Oliver Perry II, who attended to President John F. Kennedy at Parkland Memorial Hospital after he was shot in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, has died. He was 80.

    The University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center says Perry died Saturday after a battle with lung cancer.

    Perry was an assistant professor of surgery at UT Southwestern and a vascular surgeon on the Parkland staff when he became the first staff surgeon to treat Kennedy. He found no vital signs but noted a convulsive effort to breath. Perry performed a tracheotomy on Kennedy while other doctors and surgeons gathered to help.

    Perry and another surgeon performed cardiopulmonary resuscitation on Kennedy until no brain activity was detected and the president was declared dead.

  2. Did anyone else, like me, think Breslin had a pretty amazing level of access here, being able to talk with the doctor who operated on Kennedy the day after the President was in his emergency room, dying?

    I wouldn’t expect such a guy today to speak to a reporter in such detail right after an event like this.

    Are people more suspicious of the press than they used to be? Or is Breslin’s landing of this interview solely the result of his tenacity and brilliance as a reporter?

    Or am I just wrong here? What do you guys think?

  3. Would be pretty awesome to read a transcript of that press conference, with Breslin pumping “gently but thoroughly” and getting that kind of detail.

    Hard to imagine that kind of probing at a presser that big these days, though.

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