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ER doctor delves into Lincoln assassination

BY CAITLIN LOMBARDO AND EMILY MELVOLD | FEBRUARY 25, 2009 7:39 AM

When it comes to the death of former President Abraham Lincoln, Cedar Rapids doctor Blaine Houmes takes a special interest.

And on Tuesday at the UI Main Library, the emergency-room physician discussed the famed president’s death. Even by today’s medical standards, he said, Lincoln’s life could not have been saved.

For those less familiar with the assassination, actor John Wilkes Booth — angered by the Confederacy’s Civil War loss — shot and killed Lincoln on April 14, 1865, at the Ford Theatre after sneaking into the president’s box.

If Booth’s bullet fully penetrated Lincoln’s brain, death would be certain, Houmes said. However, the final resting place of the deadly bullet may never be known.

Doctors labored to revive Lincoln that night.

Charles Leale, a Union Army surgeon, was the first man to try to resuscitate Lincoln. He had a lot of knowledge regarding gunshot wounds, and it’s believed he performed an early version of CPR.

“Charles Leale almost saved Lincoln’s life,” Houmes said on Tuesday. “He originally thought Lincoln had been stabbed.”

Also, Houmes said, the doctors “noticed that every time they kept the wound open, his vital signs improved, he breathed more easily. Every time it clotted shut, he got worse.”

So even though the doctors of the era had no knowledge of brain behavior, they were able to relieve the swelling of his brain to some extent.

Lincoln was later taken across the street to the Petersen house. Sixteen doctors attended to Lincoln through the night. They tried to extract the bullet, revive him with brandy, and monitored his vital signs.

Despite their efforts, doctors pronounced him dead after his pulse stopped at 7:22 a.m. on April 15, 1865.

“In a way, he went out in a blaze of glory,” UI history Professor Colin Gordon said in a separate interview Tuesday. “The way he’s remembered has a lot to do with all of the circumstances at the time.”

At the lecture, Houmes asserted that when Lincoln died, “he went from being reviled to this almost mythical figure.”

Although not at the speech, UI American studies major Mike French agreed with the assessment.

“Sometimes, it takes something bad to happen in order to realized and find the good that can come from a person,” the 20-year-old said. “I think people realized this about Lincoln after his assassination.”


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