O n June 5, 1968, Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy left the Embbady Ballroom at the Ambbadador Hotel in Los Angeles. In a matter of seconds, US policy changed irretrievably, as it received three shots at point-blank range. Now, fifty years later, a team of neurosurgeons at Duke presents another look at the facts of the case in Journal of Neurosurgery . They want to know: was there any way to save RFK?
"We write articles about murders or diseases in famous public figures if they have never been reviewed from a medical point of view," said Dr. Theodore Pappas, author of the new document and Vice Dean of Medical Affairs at the School of Medicine of the Duke University, account inverse . "We try to find new facts that nobody has heard about." Pappas and his team of neurosurgeons at Duke have spent the last few months reviewing the medical records and testimonies that have survived since the day Kennedy was killed.
the paper reads like something between a clinical review and a true criminal history, reconstructing Kennedy's emergency surgery minute by minute. This painstaking work was worth it: they discovered that there were 45 minutes that could have been saved during Kennedy's emergency treatment, and that although he received three shots, only one of the bullets caused the fatal damage.
According to publicly available medical records and the autopsy report, Kennedy made landfall around 12:15 a.m. In a matter of minutes, his small security group – consisting of a former NFL lineman, an Olympic decathlete, and the Los Angeles Police Department – had to choose: there were two hospitals within two miles of the Ambbadador Hotel, the Central Hospital Receiving smaller and the largest hospital of Good Samaritan. An ambulance was sent to the smaller of the two, according to investigators, due to a lack of critical communication: the ambulance dispatcher did not know that Kennedy's injury was a shot to the head.
At 12:32 a.m., the senator arrived at Central Receiving Hospital, where a team tried to resuscitate him.
The team's badysis of what is known as "the perfect autopsy" due to its attention to detail showed that the fatal bullet entered Kennedy's right cerebellum and into the right occipital cortex, near the back of his head. That wound scattered fragments of bones and bullets throughout the brain, cutting off a crucial artery. Fixing it would have required craniometry, a surgical procedure that removes a small portion of the skull to access the brain. Unfortunately, smaller hospitals did not have the neurosurgical expertise on staff to treat injuries as severe as Kennedy's, as Pappas explains.
"The fact that he was taken to a very small hospital first before being transferred to a hospital with neurosurgeons caused an unfortunate delay," he says. "It's obvious that if I could do it, I would try to take him to the correct hospital directly from the hotel where he was shot." The team calculates that by doing so it would have recovered the 45 minutes that were wasted when it was transferred to Kennedy. Two blocks from the Good Samartian Hospital for surgery.
However, even that amount of time may not have done much to save the life of the senator. Kennedy's chances of survival were around 54 percent, which they say is true for similar injuries today. They believe that RFK was provided "aggressive and appropriate care according to the standard of the day". The important word that should be mentioned is "aggressive": Pappas adds that most people would not even receive surgery given the nature of the injury and the fact that Kennedy never showed signs of consciousness after he left the first hospital.
"If it had not been a sitting senator, it's possible that some neurosurgeons have not offered the operation," says Pappas.
It seems as if even modern tools have done little to save Kennedy. But the fact that he received treatment at all allows an important historical case study. The results are not highly technical; the results can be reduced to "Next time, choose the right hospital." What it ultimately shows is the inevitability and consequences of human error, and Pappas believes that studying these moments can help us "learn about ourselves by understanding our past."