Kennedy’s surgeon talks about fateful day

Dr. Robert McClelland speaking at Baylor on October 24, 2013.  McClelland, was one of the doctors that operated on President John F. Kennedy after he was shot. Constance Atton I Lariat Photographer
Dr. Robert McClelland speaking at Baylor on October 24, 2013. McClelland, was one of the doctors that operated on President John F. Kennedy after he was shot.
Constance Atton I Lariat Photographer
By Claire Cameron

Dr. Robert McClelland was in the operating room at Parkland Hospital in Dallas 50 years ago, the day former President John F. Kennedy died. Two days later, he was one of the surgeons who tried to save Lee Harvey Oswald’s life.

The 84-year-old retired doctor is the last living doctor to have operated on Kennedy. He recalls what that day was like when the president was shot, and the events following his death.

McClelland, who was a general surgeon at Parkland Memorial Hospital, spoke at Baylor on Oct. 24 about his experience of caring for Kennedy, operating on Oswald and then testifying before the Warren Commission.

Q: Can you describe what that day, Nov. 22, 1963, was like when the president was shot?
A: It started out like any other day. I was showing a film at the hospital to some residents and medical students on how to do a certain surgery when I heard a tap on the door and I saw Dr. Charles Crenshaw, one of my colleagues, in the hallway. I stepped outside and he said, “I have something very important I need to tell you.” I said OK, went back into the room, turned off the movie and then went back into the hallway and Dr. Crenshaw said, “The president’s been shot and he is on his way to the hospital right now. We need you down in surgery.” The first time I really absorbed the news about Kennedy, I was in the elevator with Dr. Crenshaw on my way down to surgery. I was still in my suit; I didn’t even have time to change.

Q: What happened when the president was brought into the hospital?
A: Well all the way down to the emergency room, Dr. Crenshaw and I were trying to cheer ourselves up, but when we got down to the first floor, it was chaos. They had news reporters everywhere trying to take pictures and shouting questions. I saw Mrs. Kennedy near a corner sitting down outside the entrance to Trauma Room One, where the president was, and I had to force myself over to where she was and through the door. When I walked in, I was horrified. It was obvious that he had a fatal wound and there was nothing we could do, but nonetheless, we tried to do all we could.

Q: Can you describe what it was like operating on the president?
A: I walked in and put on some gloves. A few doctors were already in the room trying to get chest tubes in the president and Dr. Malcolm Perry and Dr. Charles Baxter, two other surgeons, were already there performing a tracheotomy. They basically were looking for a way to get an airway so the president could breathe. There was already a wound on the president’s neck that they cut into to search for an airway. I was helping them with that surgery.

I stood at the president’s head, and I was horrified again to see the back of his head. I was staring down at his bloody head and that image still sticks in my head to this day. I still have the shirt with the president’s blood on it. Like I said, I didn’t have time to change before we went in to operate, and I was standing at his head where he was bleeding the most and got it on my suit. My wife took the suit to the cleaners, but I kept the shirt and still have it.

We tried to get him breathing again and a doctor brought in a machine to measure his heart rate. We tried all we could, but his head was blown open; I could see his cerebellum. We operated on the president for about 20 minutes but the heart monitor he was hooked up to showed his heart had stopped beating and around 1 p.m. Dr. Kemp Clark called it. “He’s gone. The president is gone,” he said.

Q: What happened after the president was pronounced dead?
A: All the reporters and the news people that had crowded around the room left in a hurry and we, all the doctors in the room, started filing out. Before Dr. Clark and I could exit the room, a priest came in to deliver the president’s last rites, and we couldn’t leave the room because the room was so small. We waited. After that, again, before we could leave, Mrs. Kennedy came in and she looked at him, the president, then walked over and took off her wedding ring and placed it on his hand then took off the president’s wedding ring and tucked it in her pocket. After she exchanged their rings, she walked around to the other side of the table where his right foot was sticking out from under the sheet he was covered with, bent down, kissed his toe and left.

Q: What was it like being in the room at such an emotional moment? What were you feeling?
A: I want to say that Mrs. Kennedy was one of the most dignified ladies I have ever seen. She was obviously grief stricken, but she was very self-contained. She didn’t scream and cry. You could tell she was upset but she was very dignified and poised. It was terrible and unimaginable but it was something I had to do — it was my job. I can’t describe how I felt; it was a tense moment.

Q: You also operated on Lee Harvey Oswald — what was that like?
A: Well two days after the president’s death, it was a Sunday and my family and I had gone to church and afterwards, my wife was getting our two small children ready for lunch and I turned on the television and I could hear the report before the picture came on, but I heard, “He’s been shot, Oswald’s been shot.” Then I saw a picture of Oswald on the ground and bloody. I ran to the stairs and told my wife, “I have to go, Oswald’s been shot.” She said, “Who’s that?” I told her the man they think shot the president. She said, “See you later.”

So I drove to the hospital and when I got there he was in Trauma Room Two and he had been shot in the abdomen and was as white as a sheet from all the blood he lost. We had to get blood into him and we massaged his heart two or three times to try and revive him but we failed and he was declared dead.

Q: The Warren Commisson was a committee set up by President Lyndon B. Johnson to investigate the death of President Kennedy and examine whether Oswald was part of a large group that plotted the president’s death or simply a lone gunman. Were you called before the Warren Commission?

A: Well it was a few months after the president’s death. But going before the commission is something I knew I had to do. The commission was set up by President Johnson and it was decided eventually that Oswald was a lone gunman, but you know the thing about it is that over the years all this information has been found that Oswald used to work in the CIA and about 80 percent of people thought that Kennedy’s death was a conspiracy after it happened. Another secret commission was set up after the Warren Commission to go into further detail about Kennedy’s death and whether Oswald was a lone gunman and in 1979 the men on the commission publically announced that they couldn’t release what they had found out for 50 years so in 2029 they will report what they find.

Q: What kind of mark do you think Kennedy left on America besides his assassination?
A: Well his death is most certainly and unfortunately is what he is most well known for, but he had a lot of good plans about civil rights and I think he was a very forward-thinking man who was cut down before he had the chance to do those things.