The Day Kennedy Died

Dr. Robert McClelland held JFK’s head in his hands. He massaged Oswald’s heart. Forty-five years later, his students are still riveted by the surgeon’s tales.

  1. In crumpled white coats filled with folded papers and stethoscopes and the various tools of the third-year medical student, they file into a cramped office. The walls are lined with books. Andrew Jennings and Jeff Konnert sit at opposite ends of the leather couch while Scott Paulson takes the leather chair. They face a 79-year-old man in a crisp, bright white jacket. Dr. Robert Nelson McClelland, not a large man, has thick glasses and tufts of white hair that match his coat.

    This is the students’ second meeting with the old doctor. He offers them soda and coffee. They are scheduled to talk about pancreatic surgery. Instead they will receive a lesson in living history. When they leave, one student will refer to this hour as the most fascinating conversation of his life.

    As they get settled, ready to hear about surgical manipulation of the biliary tract, Jennings notices a magazine on the coffee table. From the cover, it appears the entire magazine is dedicated to conspiracy theories revolving around the John F. Kennedy assassination. Six floors and 44 years separate the place where they are sitting from that moment in November 1963 when the president of the United States was carted into the emergency room in a condition witnesses would later describe as “moribund.”

    Andrew points to the magazine. “Were you here when they brought him in?” “Yeah, I helped put in the trache,” McClelland says matter-of-factly. The students gasp, as if the old East Texas doctor had put an ice-...

Originally published in D Magazine, November 2008