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Witness to history

Surgeon recalls treating JFK as he died

By Lila King
CNN

Dr. Robert Grossman describes the head injury he saw when he lifted Kennedy's head:
Dr. Robert Grossman describes the head injury he saw when he lifted Kennedy's head: "I said to myself, 'This is not a survivable wound.' "

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CNN's Dr. Sanjay Gupta talks with Dr. Robert Grossman, one of the physicans who worked to save Kennedy's life in 1963.
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The book 'Remembering Jack' offers photographer Jacques Lowe's intimate portraits of Kennedy and his family.
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CNN's Jeff Greenfield on U.S. optimism in the days before the assassination.
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Dan Rather, who covered John F. Kennedy's trip to Dallas for CBS, describes what he saw and heard.
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HOUSTON, Texas (CNN) -- At first, the young neurosurgeon thought it was a prank.

It was half-past noon on November 22, 1963, and Dr. Robert Grossman was in his lab just across a parking lot from the Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, Texas.

Grossman, then 30, was talking politics with his boss, Dr. Kemp Clark, the chief neurosurgeon, when the telephone rang.

Dallas police had just notified the hospital that President Kennedy had been shot. The caller was summoning them to the emergency room.

Grossman and Clark talked for a few more seconds and then walked toward the main hospital building. When they spotted the swarm of ambulances and police cars at the trauma room entrance, they started to run.

Kennedy had arrived in Trauma Room 1 at 12:43 p.m. Kemp and Grossman walked in at 12:48.

A full, quiet room

"As soon as you opened the door it was obvious who it was," Grossman says. "He was a very handsome man. ... A number of people have commented that he looked bigger than he actually was. Perhaps just knowing who he was seemed to magnify him ... I think he was a little larger than life."

The president lay on a stretcher in the center of the room, still wearing his clothes, minus only his suit jacket, which a Secret Service agent had removed to shield the president from photographers as they entered the hospital.

Perhaps out of respect for the patient's stature and image, Parkland doctors had not removed Kennedy's white buttoned shirt. They worked delicately around it, cutting his dark tie and opening only his collar.

The room was full but quiet. Despite all of the specialists who had been called to the emergency area -- surgeons, neurosurgeons, anesthesiologists, a urologist, an oral surgeon and a heart specialist -- there was very little talk.

"I think everyone was really so shocked," Grossman says. "There was really surprisingly little discussion."

Grossman remembers 23 people in the room, including first lady Jacqueline Kennedy.

"She was standing toward the foot of the bed, wearing the pink dress," he recalls. There was blood and brain tissue on the front of her skirt. "She was in control of herself, but her face was very white."

'Not a survivable wound'

Clark and Grossman made their way to the bed. Grossman immediately saw the president's significant head wound.

Clark stood on the left, Grossman on the right. The two neurosurgeons picked up Kennedy's head to examine the wound.

Grossman remembers the president's thick, bushy hair, and a mass of white where part of his skull had been blown open.

"As soon as I saw that, I said to myself, 'This is not a survivable wound,'" he says. Grossman had seen gunshot wounds before, but never one that had destroyed so much, he says.

Thoughts rushed through the young surgeon's head. Is there a way of salvaging this? Can we put it back together? How long would he live? Hours? Days? In a vegetative state? What would that mean for the country?

Clark and Grossman put Kennedy's head back down and started CPR, but could not revive his heart. After about 10 minutes, at 1 p.m., Clark pronounced the president dead.

Like millions of others around the world, Grossman went home that day trying to make sense of what had happened.

"The thing that went through everyone's mind was, What did this mean for the country?" he says. "Why did this happen? ... Was this the beginning of World War III?"

Grossman, now chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, has kept remarkably quiet over the past 40 years about the events of that day.

He says he worried initially that speaking about his involvement might put his children in danger.

He'd heard about the growing public interest in the controversial autopsy findings and conspiracy theories and preferred to keep out of the limelight.

Grossman was not asked to testify before Warren Commission that investigated the assassination, and he didn't read the Warren Report until just a few years ago.

Putting theories to rest

Now and then: Robert Grossman, now 70, was 30 when Kennedy was shot:
Now and then: Robert Grossman, now 70, was 30 when Kennedy was shot: "I think he was a little larger than life."

The wounds that Grossman examined 40 years ago have become central to a discussion of what exactly happened that day -- who shot the president, when, and from where.

Now, at 70, Grossman is trying to provide answers to some of those questions.

He was recently asked to contribute to a medical journal a scientific paper that analyzes Kennedy's wounds from a neuro-forensic perspective and has spent much of the past five years gathering information and revisiting details of the event.

Why now? Well, absent the fear for his small children -- they are now grown -- Grossman hopes to dispel some of the myths that surround the Kennedy assassination.

"I believe the preponderance of evidence shows that Kennedy was shot from behind," he says.

That conclusion would support the findings of the Warren Commission, which concluded that Kennedy had been shot by a 6.5 mm Italian-made Mannlicher-Carcano rifle fired by a single assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, from the sixth floor of the Texas School Book Depository.

Robert Grossman recalls Jacqueline Kennedy at the foot of her husband's bed:
Robert Grossman recalls Jacqueline Kennedy at the foot of her husband's bed: "She was in control of herself, but her face was very white."

The Warren Commission found no evidence to support the existence of a conspiracy to assassinate President Kennedy.

In 1979, the House Select Committee on Assassinations disagreed, saying Kennedy "was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy."

"There are many theories, some extreme, about what happened to the president," Grossman says. "If we can put to rest some of the wilder conspiracy theories, I think it's healthy to do so."

Through his research, Grossman has come to agree with most of the conclusions of the Warren Report, though he says his mind is open to different conclusions should new evidence surface.

When asked whether the event defined his life in any way, Grossman responds quickly and assuredly, "No, it really did not. I just happened to be there."

He just happened to be in Parkland Memorial Hospital's Trauma Room 1 at 12:48 p.m. on November 22, 1963.


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