After five minutes, a brain deprived of blood-transported oxygen suffers irreversible and often fatal damage. Thus the doctors who tried desperately last week to save the life of Robert F. Kennedy were faced with overwhelmingly negative odds from the moment the Senator was wheeled, unconscious, from an ambulance into the city's Central Receiving Hospital.
He had lost blood during the 23 minutes he lay in the pantry hallway at the Ambassador Hotel. During the four-minute ride to Central Receiving, Kennedy continued to bleed heavily, and though the attendant was able to give him oxygen, he could do nothing about his failing heartbeat. At the hospital, General Practitioner V. Faustin Bazilauskas and Surgeon Albert Holt found Kennedy in extremis, his blood pressure "zero over zero," his heartbeat almost imperceptible. "Bob! Bob! Bob!" Bazilauskas shouted, slapping his face repeatedly. There was no response.
Central Receiving doctors hooked Kennedy up to a respirator and an external-cardiac-massage machine. Bazilauskas gave him oxygen and an injection of Adrenalin to stimulate his heart, and Holt started a transfusion. Kennedy's heart began pumping. With a respirator fitted to his face, he was rushed to Good Samaritan Hospital, where a team of doctors headed by Neurosurgeon Henry Cuneo of the University of Southern California School of Medicine scrubbed and made ready. Cuneo, who was assisted by fellow Neurosurgeons Nat Downs Reid of U.S.C. and U.C.L.A.'s Maxwell Andler Jr., had performed hundreds of brain operations at Good Samaritan.
Lethal Fragments. The hospital's doctors had already performed a tracheotomy making an entrance in his throat for a tube leading to a positive-pressure machine that was pumping air in and out of his lungs. Electrodes from an electrocardiograph were taped to the Senator's chest and extremities in order to monitor his heart. X rays of his head and chest were taken. He had been receiving whole-blood transfusions ever since he had arrived.
Examining Kennedy and the X rays, Cuneo found that two bullets had entered his body. One had penetrated his right armpit, then burrowed upward through fat and muscle, lodging just under the skin of his neck, two centimeters from his spine. The other had penetrated Kennedy's head just behind his right ear (see chart).
His heart was still beating, a little fast, a little weak. His blood pressure had been dangerously high before the tracheotomy. It stabilized near normal after the throat tube relieved pressure caused by blood and mucus in the trachea. "The heart started to stabilize too, so we could operate," Cuneo later told TIME Correspondent Tim Tyler. Ethel Kennedy had been there all the while, standing in a different section of the room. "I told her we were taking X rays, that her husband was extremely critical."
Then came the trip to the ninth-floor operating room. Anesthesiologist Earle C. Skinner saw to it that the positive-pressure machine, the EKG monitor and the transfusions kept going during the transfer. There was such a crowd in the fifth-floor hall—relatives, aides, hospital personnel—that Kennedy could not be wheeled to the main elevator. Instead, he had to be wheeled to an elevator that did not go all the way up and be transferred to the main elevator at another floor.