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David Minton

ER doctor who treated Kennedy shunned fame

Profile image for By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer
By Britney Tabor / Staff Writer
Sue Carrico, the wife of Dr. Charles “Jim” Carrico, the first doctor to treat President John F. Kennedy upon his arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, reads a letter she penned to Jacqueline Kennedy offering her condolences on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963. She never mailed the card and still has it.Britney Tabor
Sue Carrico, the wife of Dr. Charles “Jim” Carrico, the first doctor to treat President John F. Kennedy upon his arrival at Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas, reads a letter she penned to Jacqueline Kennedy offering her condolences on the evening of Nov. 22, 1963. She never mailed the card and still has it.
Britney Tabor

He didn’t like discussing the day in 1963 when President John F. Kennedy was wheeled into the emergency room at Dallas’ Parkland Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Charles “Jim” Carrico, who grew up in Denton, was 28 and in his second year as a surgical resident at Parkland the day the president was brought into the hospital at 12:35 p.m. with gunshot wounds to the head and neck.

Carrico was the first doctor to treat Kennedy. He noticed the president’s severe head wound but also noted that he had a faint heartbeat and was struggling to breathe. Efforts to resuscitate the president were unsuccessful, however, and the president was pronounced dead at 1 p.m.

Carrico would later testify before the Warren Commission about what he had witnessed on Nov. 22, 1963, but he didn’t talk much about that day 50 years ago with anyone else, his family told the Denton Record-Chronicle recently.

Sometimes, though, people would ask.

“I wouldn’t say it was something he enjoyed talking about,” said Ellen Telaneus, of Denton, who is Carrico’s daughter and became a nurse. “He would talk to people when they asked but it wasn’t a pleasant — he never would have told anybody ‘and by the way.’ [He never] would have said that.”

Bill Carrico, Jim’s brother, an educator who went on to become the athletic director for the Denton school district and who still lives in Denton, said he was teaching drafting when it was announced on the radio that the president had been shot. He said his brother was 16 months older and they were very close.

Bill Carrico said he knew when he heard the news that the event would impact his brother.

“I felt it. I can’t explain it,” he said. “It’s just sometimes twins, brothers and sisters feel things. I was just tight as a drum when the radio came on and said that. I just knew he was involved. I felt it.”

Dr. Carrico’s wife, Sue, was at their Irving home watching As the World Turns and caring for her two children at the time and two others when Walter Cronkite interrupted to announce the president had been shot. She said it was shocking. She wanted to talk to someone and went outside to look for a neighbor and found no one.

She said she tried to call her husband at the hospital but she could not get through. Another doctor called her, she said, to tell her Dr. Carrico had been in with the president. She believes she spoke with her husband later that night.

“It was just a strange day, dramatic day,” Sue Carrico said.

She recalls her husband telling that when he left Trauma Room 1 where Kennedy had been treated, he went into the hallway and tried to light a cigarette, but could not. His hands were shaking, she said, and a nurse had to light the cigarette for him.

Dr. Carrico didn’t come home that night at all, Sue Carrico said. She penned a letter that evening to Jackie Kennedy offering her condolences, but never mailed the card. She still has it.

“As I come to the end of this long and terror-stricken day, my thoughts are so with you that I feel I must write a message of sympathy,” she wrote, ending, “May God bless you and your family.”

The next day, on Saturday morning, she picked up her husband and another doctor from the hospital but doesn’t remember much of the conversation.

“I know they were very tired, exhausted, more so than usual because of what they’d been through,” she said. “And I was in some sort of state of, not shock, but you know the whole country was. Everybody had done nothing but watch television from the time it happened, and it was all-consuming, so words didn’t really have to be said.”

Sue Carrico remembers her husband bringing home his shirt, stained with the president’s blood, and washing it.

“It was President Kennedy’s blood and we were kind of aware that that was a big deal to wash President Kennedy’s blood down the drain but we wanted it washed away,” she said. “Some doctors kept their clothes ... but it never occurred to us.”

That weekend, Dr. Carrico went to Denton and attended services at St. Andrew Presbyterian Church. He sat his family down during the visit and shared what he had witnessed that day in Parkland, Bill Carrico said.

Happy Carrico, Bill Carrico’s daughter who is now the principal at Newton Rayzor Elementary School, said she once asked her uncle about President Kennedy.

“He said that it was really hard, difficult to be famous for something that was so tragic, and that’s why he didn’t like to talk about it because it made him sad,” she said. “He felt like he should have been able to save the president and he couldn’t save the president. Nobody could have saved the president.

“It disturbed him that he could not do more than he did.”

Happy Carrico said the president could not have been in better hands.

“If I was in a situation like that, I would want my Uncle Jim to be there ... whether you could be saved or not,” she said. “He was such a special person. He was an incredible doctor.”

Dr. Carrico, who was a graduate of Denton High School and what is now the University of North Texas, left Parkland after his residency in 1967. He joined the U.S. Navy and served two years, then returned to Parkland in 1969 and worked there until 1974. In 1974, he and his family moved to Washington state, where he subsequently became chief of surgery at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle and where he helped start a Level 1 Trauma Center.

He was chairman of the surgery department at the University of Washington School of Medicine, and in 1990 he joined the staff at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. He retired in 2000 and died in 2002.

During his career, he also served as president of the American Association for the Surgery of Trauma.

Thirty years after the president’s assassination, Telaneus said her father shared his oral history with The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, and in his later years would talk to graduating medical students about the assassination, Telaneus said.

“He told them that they needed to make sure whatever they did at any moment they were prepared to take care of the president of the United States or a homeless person off the street and give them all the same care,” she said. “And so in that sense, it defined his standard of care, for everyone he took care of needed to have the care that the president would have gotten, and I think he felt very strong about that. ... I don’t think he would have let anybody not get the same care that JFK got.”

At the time of his death, Dr. Carrico was president-elect of the American College of Surgeons. He was 67 when he died of colon cancer in Greenbank on Whidbey Island in Washington. He is portrayed by actor Zac Efron in the feature film Parkland, which was released in theaters Nov. 5.

Tending to President Kennedy was a part of Dr. Carrico’s history, according to his wife. But it didn’t define him.

“I think it was always a part of something very important that had happened to him,” Sue Carrico said. “He didn’t like to have any kind of fame from it because it just was something that happened to him.

“It did have an impact, but it did not shape his life.”

BRITNEY TABOR can be reached at 940-566-6876 and via Twitter at @BritneyTabor.