Imagine it’s 1963 and you’re a 34-year-old doctor living and working in Dallas and the President of the United States is coming to town. The leader of the free world – young, handsome and popular – riding in an open motorcade through the city you call home.
What happened Nov. 22, 1963 was shocking enough itself. Dr. Robert McClelland was certainly in disbelief along with the rest of the nation that day. But if that wasn’t enough of a jolt to the system, the call from Parkland Memorial Hospital telling McClelland to come to the emergency room and assist in the care of President Kennedy certainly got his attention.
“It’s just one of unbelief and shock, of course,” McClelland said. “You don’t stop and think about what you’re thinking. You just have to go into reaction mode. Otherwise, you might harm someone standing around thinking about what’s going on. You just react.”
McClelland will discuss his involvement in the historic event in a program titled “JFK’s Last Doctor” at 7:30 p.m. at the Allen Public Library, 300 N. Allen Drive.
At the time, McClelland was just in his second year as a faculty member at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas with a specialty in general surgery. For this particular procedure, Dr. Malcolm Perry and Dr. Charles Baxter, the ER director at Parkland, had McClelland hold a retractor for them while they performed a tracheotomy on Kennedy in an effort to save his life. It was, of course, an unsuccessful attempt.
If that experience wasn’t traumatic enough, two days later, McClelland was called back in to help save Lee Harvey Oswald after he was gunned down by Dallas nightclub operator Jack Ruby as Oswald was being transported by police to the nearby county jail. McClelland said it was the “same way” he felt during his care of Kennedy, “very much a shock.”
“It’s probably one of the signal events of my life,” he said. “I don’t really sit around and think about it. But that’s really the most significant event I was ever involved in.”
Tom Keener, cultural arts manager at the Allen library, said McClelland is a rare find that will provide a unique insight into what occurred at Parkland that day.
“Dr. McCelland was an eye witness to the one of the most tragic events in United States history, the murder of a President,” he said. “Mrs. Kennedy accompanied her husband into the trauma room, and while assisting the president, the doctors and nurses were also consoling a mourning widow.”
McClelland has been retired from surgery for 16 years now and said he doesn’t much bring up those tumultuous days 52 years ago when the nation was rocked to its core. He’s happy to answer questions if someone asks, but “I don’t go around saying look what I did or anything like that,” he said.
“Like I said, I don’t dwell on it.”
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