Earlier this month, MedPage Today published an article about a presentation at the annual conference of the American College of Emergency Physicians regarding the treatment of President John F. Kennedy in the emergency room of Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 — 57 years ago this month. Retired Iowa cardiologist Joe Goldstrich, MD, responded in the article’s comments, noting that he was “the most junior person actively participating in the JFK resuscitation efforts.”
MedPage Today confirmed that Goldstrich was present in Trauma Room One and reached out to the physician, who is now an advocate for medical cannabis. In an interview, Goldstrich – 25 years old then and 82 now — spoke about treating the president, nearly treating his assassin, and his one regret.
MedPage Today: What do you remember about Nov. 22, 1963?
Joe Goldstrich, MD: I was a fourth-year medical student on my neurosurgery rotation at Parkland Hospital. Early that morning, we performed an anterior cervical discectomy on a patient. It was the first time this procedure had been done at Parkland. Dr. Kemp Clark, who was the head of neurosurgery, said the main complication that concerned him for this procedure was that there might be bleeding and it could obstruct the airway, and the patient might need a tracheotomy.
He asked me: Do you know how to do a tracheotomy? And I said yes. Well, I had done one on a cadaver, but I wasn’t really an expert. So I spent the whole morning in the library reading up on tracheotomies, and I checked in on the patient a couple of times to see if he was doing OK.
Then there was a STAT page for Dr. Clark around 12 noon. I was in the cafeteria on the first floor of the hospital eating lunch. My first thought was that the reason they were paging Dr. Clark was that this patient had bled and now has obstruction of his airway. And I’m gonna have to do a tracheotomy.
I ran up five or six flights of stairs to the floor where the patient was, and I burst into the room. He was sitting in bed, reading a magazine. I said, “Oh, thank God you’re OK. You’re fine. They’re paging Dr. Clark STAT, and I had no idea what it was and thought it might have been you.” He said, “I don’t know,” but he pointed out the window to where the Kennedy motorcade was pulling into the entrance of the hospital. “Maybe it has something to do with those limousines that are going into the hospital.”
I ran down the stairs to the emergency room. I was in my scrubs from the morning. There was already a Secret Service agent at the door. I said “Goldstrich, neurosurgery,” and he let me right in. I got into the emergency room at the same time as JFK was entering on a gurney.
Did you realize the patient was Kennedy?
I knew that it was. I don’t remember exactly how, but I knew.
What was your job in Trauma Room One?
I helped move him from the gurney to the treatment table and then undress him.
I was also the chief gofer. I went to get the defibrillator, which was about the size of a single-door refrigerator. I pushed it on the casters back from another part of the emergency room to Trauma Room One.
What struck you about his condition?
I saw the wound in the lower part of his neck. I looked in the neck wound and saw the cartilage of the trachea on the back side through the hole. I do not remember whether instruments had [yet] been used to expand the wound. I am clear, however, that I saw the posterior aspect of the trachea.
What happened next?
Within a few minutes, there were a number of people in Trauma Room One.
When Dr. Clark walked in, [emergency room director] Dr. Charlie Baxter was doing closed-chest cardiac compressions on JFK. Dr. Clark saw the head wound and said something like, “My God, Charlie, what are you doing? His brains are on the floor.”
At that moment I was standing on the left side of Kennedy. And Jackie [Kennedy] was further back on his right side, in a corner. Dr. Clark had not seen Jackie. When he did see her, I was right between them. I saw her expression when she heard what he had said. That’s another moment that’s indelibly imprinted on my brain, unfortunately.
What did you see?
Jackie was in shock, like a deer in the headlights. She was surprised that someone spoke so bluntly about what was going on.
Do you think Kennedy was alive when he reached the hospital?
He was dead on arrival, in all likelihood. I’m not the expert on that. That’s just my humble, amateur opinion.
You didn’t talk publicly about assisting in Trauma Room One until you appeared in the 1993 book JFK: Breaking the Silence. How come?
Because I was afraid. There were so many people who were associated with the assassination who had died, sometimes by questionable means. Then this guy [author Bill Sloan] tracked me down and wanted an interview. He called me a couple of times, and I said no. And then when he called me again, and I said to myself, “Well, maybe this professional writer can help me with the book that I was writing [about antioxidants and heart disease].”
I gave him the interview. It turned out he knew nothing about medicine, and he was no help whatsoever. But that’s what drew me out of my shell.
At first, you believed that JFK was shot in the throat from the front, suggesting the possibility of a second shooter. What changed your mind?
When I first saw that wound in Trauma Room One, I did not know anything about ballistics and entrance and exit wounds. Then I went into the army in 1965, and I was stationed in the Dominican Republic. After a crash course in entrance and exit wounds by the field hospital commander, I was sent to examine the wound of a Dominican who’d been shot by an American MP. Based on what I had learned, it was clear to me that the Dominican was shot in the back. In that moment, I realized that JFK’s throat wound was probably an entrance wound because the margins were so clean and the wound was so small.
But over the past couple of years, I spent a considerable amount of time watching the Zapruder film. After watching it over and over again, I realized it would be impossible for someone from the front to shoot Kennedy simultaneously with [Lee Harvey] Oswald shooting from behind the president. That’s when I changed my mind. However, no one will ever know for sure.
Do you think JFK got excellent care?
Absolutely. He got state-of-the-art care. As students, we were told that Parkland had some of the best survival rates in the whole country for trauma patients. This was supposedly due to Dr. Tom Shires, the chief of surgery, popularizing the use of intravenous fluids acutely rather than blood transfusions. The staff and residents in the emergency room were successfully working with trauma patients on a daily basis. At least, that is what I was told as a medical student back then.
Were you a fan of the president?
I loved him. I resonated with his philosophy and his agenda. I guess I was a major JFK fan.
There’s something else: One my best friends growing up in Dallas was named Henry Zapruder. His father was Abraham Zapruder [the Dallas dressmaker who shot the famous film of the assassination.] I knew the Zapruders very well, and had been in their home many times. [Editor’s note: MedPage Today reached out to the Zapruder family, which confirms the close friendship.]
What did you do after JFK was declared dead?
I went into the surgical dressing room and probably put on my street clothes. Then I went outside. There was a big crowd across the street in front of the nursing school dormitory. I just went and mingled in that crowd. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t tell anybody that I was there. I just listened to what they said. And then I went home.
It must have been a shock to my immune system. On Saturday [Nov. 23] the next day, I had a bad case of the flu when I woke up. But I was on call on surgery on Sunday [Nov. 24], and I came to the hospital even though I was sick.
A third-year student named Nick Grivas, who went on to become a neurosurgeon, was also on surgery call that day. I told Nick, “I’m gonna go to the call room and get some rest because I’m not feeling well. But if anything happens, come wake me up.”
When I woke up from my nap and came out into the surgical area, people were running around. I learned that Oswald had been shot and was being operated on. Nick Grivas had scrubbed in my place.
Do you have any regrets about those moments in Trauma Room One?
Yes. When I looked at JFK’s throat wound, my thoughts were that it was not necessary to expand the hole for the tracheotomy. They could have put the tracheotomy tube directly into the hole without the incisions that were done. I wanted to say that when they started to do the tracheotomy: “You don’t have to do that.”
But remember, I was the most junior person in the room. These were my professors, surgeons and residents who were years ahead of me in their training. So I did not say, “Just put it in the hole, you don’t have to do any cutting.” That would have preserved the nature of the wound, making it more amenable to determining whether it was an entrance or an exit wound.
But I didn’t say anything. I regret that.
Last Updated November 18, 2020