On November 22, 1963, John Hugh was a first year medical student at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital. Disappointed at not having time see the Presidential parade as it passed through Dallas, he had lunch in the doctors’ cafeteria. Still wearing his lab coat, and not yet knowing the President had been shot, he took a short cut back to class when he was mistaken for a doctor and commandeered by a gun-toting man in a suit who said, “The President’s been shot! We need to get him inside!” John was the first to reach the President’s bloody limo. Told here for the first time, is the story of how that fateful day at Parkland impacted one person.
By John Hugh as told to Robin Simmons
I’m a student at University of Texas Southwestern Medical School, located adjacent to Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital.
Although we are only first year students, on the weekends we go to Parkland and “play” doctor — do grunt work or hang out in the Emergency Room and watch them sew up patients. For some reason, the sight of blood in that setting makes me queasy. Occasionally, doctors allow us to observe surgical procedures. I pass out more than once.
The academic material is not a problem. I’m considered an excellent student. But the hands-on work — well, that’s not my thing. In my heart, I already know I don’t want to be a doctor and I’m looking for a way out, although I dare not talk to anyone about it. I am very good at keeping things inside.
Friday, November 22, I have a lunch date with the pretty Barbara Mashman, a nursing student — one of the best parts of being a med student. We plan to go to the nearest site where we can see the President’s motorcade pass. I am equally eager to see Texas Governor John Connally, who is accompanying the visiting President. The route has been widely publicized in the two local newspapers and on the radio.
Kip’s Big Boy is the closest place to grab a bite. But when we realize an hour is not enough time to drive, park, eat, walk to a place to watch the motorcade and then return to classes, we know it just isn’t possible.
Disappointed, we decide to dine in the doctors’ cafeteria in the hospital. The dress code for med students is slacks, shirt and tie, but most of us wear our lab jackets at lunch hoping everybody thinks we are doctors. We talk about President Kennedy’s charisma. And the divided feelings he generates. I feel bad not getting to see him.
Following lunch, we take a shortcut back to the medical school that goes past the Blood Bank, through the Emergency Room. I see a sudden commotion down the corridor. Suits appear. Some have guns drawn. They are shouting: “Clear this room, we need some doctors.”
I leave Barbara at the Blood Bank and run toward the disturbance. A suit steps up to me, grabs my elbow and says, “The President has been shot! We need to get him inside.”
The incomprehensible words hardly register. There is no thinking, just doing. I step through the doors.
The suit pulls me toward a long, dark blue convertible that is parked just outside the ambulance entrance. I had always assumed the President’s limo would be black. The top is down.
I enter the vehicle from the back right passenger side. I see a limp, apparently lifeless man sprawled across the back seat. There is a coat over his head and torso.
Quickly, other hands are on his body. We carefully lift him out and onto a gurney that immediately appears. During this process, the coat falls away. I see clearly it is the President John Kennedy.
Strange or not, I am teary as I recall this. The right parietal region of the skull is gaping open with brain tissue exposed. His eyes are open and rolled back. Bloody, greyish brain matter is about his head and stuck to the top of the car’s trunk.
I grip him under his armpits. We set him on the gurney, face up. He’s not as heavy as I expect. Someone readjusts the coat over his head.
I find myself at the head end of the gurney and Mrs. Kennedy is at my shoulder, to my immediate right. I remember thinking she’s a pretty little lady, smaller than I had imagined. She’s very pale. Her skin looks almost translucent. I notice she has tiny freckles across her nose and under her eyes, just like my sister. Mrs. Kennedy’s skin is so colorless, it’s as if her freckles hang in the space in front of her face. She wears a bright pink, textured suit. I realized it’s splattered with blood — and some of what appears as textured cloth is brain tissue.
I am overwhelmed by how fragile Mrs. Kennedy appears. Never before or since have I seen anyone more frightened.
We push the gurney feet first into and through the Emergency Room. One of the wheels is out of whack. It thump thump thumps.
Swiftly, we glide into Operating Room One, I think, now crowded with suits and hyper alert medical personnel. There is shouting. They look at me. “Is he dead? Is he dead?” I don’t answer. I don’t see any press.
There is an efficient scurry of trauma care and more “Is he dead?” shouts. We place the President on the operating table. Again, I see his awful head wound. Doctors go to work seeking — or trying to sustain — signs of life.
I turn to leave. A suit says, “You can’t leave, you’re a doctor. We have to get Mrs. Kennedy out of here.” Still standing next to me, she hears this and says in a surprisingly firm voice, “You can’t make me leave. I won’t look, but I’m not leaving.” All I can say is “Oh.” She keeps repeating, “You can’t make me leave”. Mrs. Kennedy is tearfully wide-eyed, but she is not sobbing.
After a moment, I slip away. I feel a total and utter helplessness.
In a corridor, I recognize an intern. He stares at me and says, “What happened to you?” I ask where can I wash-up? I am concerned because my new, green, pin-stripped Oxford cloth shirt from Jas K. Wilson has blood all over both sleeves.
I cleanup and get Barbara from the Blood Bank. We hardly talk. In the fewest words possible, I tell her what she couldn’t see. She is speechless. Like good students, Barbara and I return to our respective classes.
Back in Anatomy Lab, other students seem to know where I had been. I don’t remember telling anyone but Barbara. How did they know? I think that’s odd.
I am called into Miss Rucker’s office. The secretary to the Dean of Students warns me, “If anyone from the news media calls, do not talk to them about where you were or what you did.” I don’t know how she knows. Or why she says this.
School closes for the rest of the day. I go home in a stupor where I sit spellbound in front of the TV and constantly find myself crying.
The Sunday following the assassination, my lab partner and I plan to meet at the Anatomy Lab and study our cadaver.
On the radio, the shocking news that Lee Harvey Oswald, Kennedy’s alleged assassin, has been shot is reported. By the time I get to Parkland, Oswald is on his way to the city morgue.
A surreal surfeit of bodies occupies my mind.
As I look back on that time, it’s as though a part of me remains forever observing the horror from above. Perhaps it’s my method of coping. I don’t know why I didn’t faint while helping remove the President’s body from the limousine.
In my mind are a stack of vivid moments like vintage postcards but with sound: the long blue limo, the limp body on the back seat, Mrs. Kennedy’s freckles, the President’s head wound, the thumping gurney wheel, the blood on my hands, the echoing shouts “Is he dead?” and Mrs. Kennedy’s firm “You can’t make me leave, you can’t make me leave.”
After the JFK assassination, I explore ways to get out of med school — which I now hate. I don’t want to just quit, but I can’t think of a logical way to exit gracefully. My God, what will my parents think?
Since getting into medical school is such a hard-earned achievement, I don’t dare talk to my peers about leaving. I seek advice from the head of Psychiatry, Dr. Stubblefield. He says a good doc should love what he does and to think it over.
I go before the Psychiatric Committee and formally request a withdrawal, which I am eventually awarded. It is effective for five years, during which time I can return. They want me back. It’s a nice feeling but a circumstance I cannot imagine.
When I tell my folks of my decision to quit the study of medicine; my mother starts crying. My dad says, “Don’t tell your Uncle”. (I have a cousin of the same age with whom I always compete.) I have disappointed my parents. But I keep it all inside. Later, I go out, run a red light, and total my new 1963 Barracuda.
I know now something big changed the weekend JFK died. And not just for me.
After I abandon plans to become a doctor, I dabble in little theater, do a few commercials and catch the acting bug.
I still cannot easily speak of that terrible, beautiful, sunny day in Dallas. For me, it’s an ever-present, unexpected, singular, intimate, horrific thing that released me from a life I didn’t want.
Conspiracy theories don’t interest me. Nor do questions about the why of it all. Fifty years later, I realize it’s something I can never fully process. Life is fragile and it is now. That’s all I know.
What I still see most clearly from that day is Jackie Kennedy’s paleness, her fear, her strength and how her freckles look like my sister’s.
“Change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.” ~ John Fitzgerald Kennedy