Personal Reflection: An account of the last moments of MLK’s life
By John Gilluly
Monday, Jan. 16, is a federal holiday celebrating the life and legacy of a man who brought hope and healing to America, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I think many, if not most, people today only know of Dr. King from historical accounts of his life’s story and legacy. However, I grew up in the era of Dr. King. I did not know him personally at the time, nor to be honest, take that much of an interest in his efforts toward civil rights reform. But I did have a very unique encounter with Dr. King that led me to explore and subsequently to better appreciate his role as one of America’s greatest champions of racial justice and equality.
During the latter 1960s, I was a college student who worked in the evenings at a local hospital to earn money that would pay for my tuition and other education costs. My choice of employment was facilitated if not enabled by the fact that my dad, a general surgeon, was one of the staff physicians at the same hospital.
While on a phone conversation one evening at work, I had the unusual experience of the hospital operator interrupting my call to inform me that I was needed “stat” in the emergency room (ER). I found it unusual that given the rather primitive state of technology at the time, an operator had the capability to interrupt a telephone call with a party outside of the hospital facility. Times have changed.
One of the primary responsibilities of my job was to respond to emergency situations as a member of a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) team. “Stat” was the code word at the time that signified an emergency.
Such a call to the ER was not unusual for me, but as I raced to and arrived at the ER, several things did strike me as unusual at the time. For example, as I passed the admittance desk, I overheard the attending nurse make the statement that Washington wanted to know his condition. The hospital at which I worked was not particularly large, and I was familiar with most, if not all the staff physicians. There was no Dr. Washington associated with this hospital. To enter the treatment room, I had to pass by a police officer who controlled admittance through the doorway. The man was so large that I didn’t have to duck under his arm (at shoulder level) as he opened the door to let me in. And why was a police officer controlling access to an ER treatment room?
Upon entering the treatment room, I encountered a staff physician (the chief of orthopedic surgery) attempting to administer CPR to the patient. Usually an intern or resident physician did this, not a senior staff physician.
I immediately attempted to ventilate the patient using at first a hand-held ventilator. The effort was futile due to the extent of the injuries to the man’s neck. I then had an anesthetist insert a tube into the patient’s windpipe, similar to what is done during a surgical procedure, and attached a respirator that forced oxygen into the patient’s lungs. He was alive at this point, although in surveying the extent of his injury, it became apparent his chance for survival was remote at best. I remember thinking that injuries of this sort are usually the result of an automobile accident; however, given the extent of the injury, the man must have been hit by a train.
Thereafter, things only got more hectic. Physicians from all over the hospital were entering the treatment room to assess the patient’s injury and to see if they could help. There was very little anyone could do, the man’s jugular vein had been severed, and given medical technology at the time, there was nothing that could be done to save him. I wonder if the same would be true today.
Still, why were so many physicians concerned with what I thought was an automobile accident victim? A short while later that I got my answer.
The date was April 4, 1968, and the hospital where I worked was St. Joseph’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. The man on the treatment table that I was attempting to resuscitate was Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It hit me like a brick wall. What had happened to him? It wasn’t until later that I learned that Dr. King was struck by a single .30-06 bullet fired from a Remington Model 760 rifle.
Strangely, to me at least, everyone left the treatment room, even though Dr. King was still medically alive, albeit his prognosis was at that time without hope. I looked into the lobby for a moment and was blinded by all the media camera lights. Police wearing riot gear, carrying submachine guns were everywhere.
Things got worse. Anyone who left the hospital that evening was brought back in on a stretcher. I remember looking through a window at the surrounding area only to discover that it resembled a war zone. Virtually every building for as far as the eye could see was on fire. Homes and businesses were totally destroyed. I couldn’t understand why at the time, and other than a massive hysterical revolt to what had happened, I still have difficulty with that today.
What has stayed with me through the years as I recall this event is not so much its historical significance. I stayed in that treatment room alone with Dr. King for a good while after all the medical experts had left. It seemed the respectful thing to do. And what I experienced was an indescribable peacefulness that I can only attribute to the presence of God. In all the surrounding violence and mayhem, one might rightly ask, where is God in all of this madness? I believe he was in that treatment room with his faithful disciple, Dr. Martin Luther King.
The MLK holiday is not just a day off. It honors the courage of a man who not only endured harassment, threats, beatings, bombings and jail, but also a man who paid the ultimate price for his commitment to achieve freedom for others –– the greatest act of love as described by Christ (Jn 15:13).
And so, with recognition of this self-giving, unconditional love, let us all continue to strive to achieve Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream to make equality a reality for all Americans.