Dr. Benjamin Aaron wanted to treat this patient like any other, even if it was a president with a bullet in his chest.
Aaron, who operated on President Ronald Reagan after the president was shot, said he didn't want the importance of the patient to affect his performance.
“And so it is a mind game,” Aaron said this week in a telephone interview. “And it's part of your surgical discipline. It's part of your training. It's part of being a professional.”
Aaron spoke today at 7 a.m. at Scott Conference Center, 6450 Pine St.
Aaron, now 79, served as chief of cardiothoracic surgery at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C., when John Hinckley shot Reagan on March 30, 1981. That afternoon, Aaron was called to the hospital emergency room from his office across the street.
His career had been spent working on the chests and hearts of patients, including gunshot, knife and car-wreck victims. He had been a naval surgeon and had operated on Vietnam War combat victims while based at Guam Naval Hospital.
An emergency room doctor told Aaron that the president had a chest wound. Aaron followed the doctor to Reagan, who was pale, alert and receiving oxygen through a mask. A chest tube helped expand Reagan's collapsed lung, and blood ran from the injury into that tube.
Although Reagan was bleeding heavily, Aaron was pleased that the president wasn't in worse condition.
He had to decide whether to leave the bullet inside Reagan, perform surgery immediately or wait and see how Reagan responded without surgery. But there was too much blood flowing into the chest tube, and the president was 70 years old. Aaron didn't want to procrastinate.
He decided to operate. “That was my decision,” he said. “Nobody else made it.”
They moved Reagan to an operating room a three-minute walk from the emergency room.
Aaron uttered a prayer, as he frequently did before difficult cases. He prayed to do a good job, to make good decisions, to make no major mistakes and to achieve a good outcome.
“From there on, it's in the hands of God how it's going to come out,” Aaron said. He wasn't ever inclined to be nervous, he said, and he wasn't this time.
The bullet had entered Reagan in the front part of the left armpit. The bullet hole was a little slit, like a button hole, but the hole in the lung was so large that Aaron could put his index finger in it.
Later, experts figured the bullet had struck the outside of the car that Reagan had been pushed into. The bullet flattened like a disc, then struck Reagan, hit a rib, and the disc tumbled end over end into the lung.
Aaron struggled to find the bullet, which surprised and concerned him. He worried that it had come to rest in one of the large vessels that drains the lung and that perhaps it had moved into Reagan's heart. From there it could have been ejected by the heart into some other place inside his body.
But a new X-ray showed it was still in the lung. By placing a catheter the length of the wound through Reagan's side and lung, Aaron found the bullet and pulled it out.
Aaron said bullet experts later determined that the bullet had been created to cause a small explosion inside its victim, but failed to do so.
If Aaron had chosen to wait, he speculates now, there would have been an uproar that an explosive bullet had been left inside the president. Surely he would have had to go back and remove it.
The right decision was made. Reagan bounced back. In less than two weeks, the president exited the hospital.
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