A former on-call intern recounts the assassination that shook the NYC medical community to its core
On December 8, 1980, I was awake all night, a medical intern on-call at Montefiore/North Central Bronx Hospitals in New York City.
I didn’t hear anything about John Lennon until 3 AM on December 9th when I pushed a patient on a gurney from the ER to Radiology. The technician asked, “Did you hear what happened outside The Dakota last night? John Lennon was shot a bunch of times when he and Yoko Ono got out of a limo and walked toward their building. He was rushed to Roosevelt Hospital where he was pronounced dead by 11:15 PM.”
That was exactly how I found out that John Lennon was dead.
It was a night in my internship when I didn’t have a minute to think about John. All night the calls never stopped, another sick patient admitted to our service from the ER. It was one of the nights in my medical training when I felt scared. “Are there more incredibly ill patients waiting downstairs than I can care for?” I wondered if there were too many and I would make a fatal error. I said to myself, “worry later, right now there is just too much work.”
I asked my resident what would happen, worst case? He had survived internship and had twice as many patients to see as each of the interns did. “Don’t worry,” he told me. “keep following your judgment. This is what you are trained for, and you are doing well. Somehow morning always comes, and the patients will be alive, sleeping sweetly in their beds. The terror will end, and we will be exhausted from non-stop adrenaline, after a long night saving lives.” I felt I would follow our compassionate resident into a foxhole any night.
He continued, “I see every patient with you, and it is my job to recognize who might die tonight, and admit them to the Intensive Care Unit.” I felt tearful, as I thanked him, and hoped he was right about the inevitability of daybreak. All night, sicker patients kept rolling on gurneys up to our floor, their exhausted families trailing behind them to the elevators.
Finally, morning actually was a miracle, pink light rising through the windows of the nursing station in the Bronx, as I finished my last admission note. We were not on-call anymore. A fresh team would get the next patient.
The interns and resident doctors on our team had not been to our on-call rooms all night. We went now to find our toothbrushes, clean socks and surgical scrubs. Then we found coffee, doughnuts and maybe a buttered roll. Another sleepless night on-call behind us, fueled by a desire to do well. and the Intern’s Prayer, “please don’t let anyone die on my watch.”
Our team brought more coffee to Morning Report where the medical history of each patient admitted the night before was presented by the admitting intern to our attending physician, our professor of clinical medicine for the month. Here we sat raw, red eyed, awaiting judgment. Morning Report where the most intense medical learning took place, a diagnosis made at night exposed for the first time by an intern, and discussed, and assessed at Morning Report would never be forgotten. Learning this way was a ritual. receiving the tribal law during painful deprivation and scarring.
The morning after John Lennon, there had been no time to prepare our cases by reading about them in Harrison’s, the bible of Internal Medicine, and we were nervous. The personality of the attending doctor determined whether it would be a learning exercise or sadistic abuse of fragile House Officers who had done their best on a terrible night. I have watched excellent interns and residents in tears defending their judgments, exposed after a night just like we had. I felt that “boot camp” was the wrong metaphor for teaching young doctors, who didn’t deserve humiliation. However, today Morning Report after a hard night was humane and educational, and our residents took us out for breakfast at the coffee shop in the hospital lobby.
We were now twenty-four hours into thirty-six hours in the hospital. All day we spent seeing our patients, writing progress notes, ordering tests and checking lab results. At around six or seven PM we signed our patients out to the team now on night call and left the hospital for twelve hours off. We were on-call back then every third night, and the day which followed.
Since 1980 there have been changes made in training medical doctors because of some publicized deaths occurring when decisions were made by resident physicians deprived of sleep. The hours a trainee can work without going home to sleep have been reduced. I agree with all the changes; and I hope that less errors occur. It should help, but we need to remember, doctors are always, in the end, human.
VIDEO: John Lennon murder coverage on NBC Today, December 9, 1980
The night after John Lennon was shot, I drove downtown to the Upper Westside where I lived with my first wife. Also, a doctor, she was on-call that night at New York Hospital. Driving disembodied, feeling myself float above the Westside Highway, I tried not to play bumper cars with Jersey barriers lining the road. The radio news was all John Lennon and the music, too. One song after another played right into my heart, Imagine, Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown), A Day in the Life and You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and Julia. At one point I turned on the windshield wipers to clear away the rain, finally I saw my falling tears.
I parked and walked to a Cuban Chinese restaurant on Broadway to sit at a table for one. I ordered Cuban grilled pork chops in Chinese black bean sauce, and Jamon Lo Mein. I drank two Tsing Tao beers and walked into an empty apartment and slept till 5:30 AM.
In any free moment the next day I thought about John Lennon, always my favorite Beatle. Paul was for choir boys and twelve-year-old girls, George developed his soul later as a songwriter, and Ringo was always goofy. John was angry, his voice perfect for rock and roll, the beautiful lyrics urgent, and filled with sorrow.
It wasn’t until 1965 when You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away was released on the Help album, that I understood the loneliness inside John Lennon.
“Here I stand head in hand,
Turn my face to the wall
If she’s gone, I can’t go on,
Feeling two foot small.”
It really wasn’t until 1968, The White Album, when Julia was released that I understood John’s loss. Julia was struck and killed by a car when John was seventeen and it was then I felt John’s trauma. My father died in 1973 and my loneliness moved in to stay. 8
He lived with his Aunt Mimi and her husband. Julia had left him to be raised by her elder sister, but lived nearby in Liverpool. John and Julia always had a relationship, she bought him his first guitar, which he kept at her house. Now Julia was dead, John forever abandoned. Listen to what he wrote in 1968 about his mom,
“Half of what I say is meaningless,
But I say it just to reach you, Julia
Julia, Julia ocean child, calls me
So, I sing a song of love, Julia
Julia, seashell eyes, windy smile calls me
So, I sing a song of love, Julia.”
It was late December of 1965 when the album Rubber Soul was released and changed me. My friend Robby and I were sophomores, not yet 16 and found ourselves at a party in the attic room of the beautiful Graham sisters, Augusta, Tina and Gwendolyn. They were college age and the two older sisters had been my babysitters in the summers when I was small, and my parents went to play tennis. Now we were here during Christmas vacation in the Adirondacks. It was a night from adolescence I can’t forget, a party with the three most desirable sisters in our town on Lake Champlain.
AUDIO: The Beatles “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”
That night was the first time I heard “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” listening to Rubber Soul over and over. I felt the beauty of Norwegian Wood with all my teenage longing. John; “She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh, I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath. And when I awoke, I was alone this bird had flown.” Tina Graham was on the couch with her college boyfriend. It was hard to watch, and John Lennon’s words played in my head. “Here I stand head in hand… Turn my face to the wall.” At fifteen, on a night of teen age pathos, when I was sure I would never make out with Tina Graham like that.
I remember December 8, 1980, the way I do November 22, 1963, when I walked down the hill away from school, the president dead, early dismissal on the day history began to be televised.
The shootings of Martin and Bobby and The Challenger explosion are less sharply exposed on my reel of tragic endings.
September 11,200I, as crystalline as the Kennedy assassination for me. I stood in the seventh-floor lounge outside the Intensive Care Unit of Danbury Hospital where I worked as a Cardiologist. A group of us stood; family members of patients who had slept on couches in the lounge to be near loved ones in the ICU, doctors on rounds, cleaning staff. All of our eyes frozen upward onto the screen of a wall mounted TV, the airplanes impacting the towers, again and again.
My only thought in that moment was how to reach my son away at school in the Berkshires. Students did not have cell phones and text then. He wouldn’t be able to reach his mother in Manhattan, where cell service was already lost, and he would be terrified until he reached her and knew she and his stepfather weren’t at a meeting at the World Trade Center.
I called the desk at his school where the kids had gathered waiting for parents to call. I told Dan, “I will reach your mom and let you know she’s alright and drive up and get you later once we know what is what. “
It was nearly twenty-one years since the night John Lennon was shot, and unlike that night I was a senior physician now, and not on-call for cardiac emergency that day, I had no procedures to perform.
We decided to close our office at noon for elective patient visits. Our homeland had been attacked for the first time in our lives, and the roads soon filled up with cars all moving to gather family to the safety of home. I felt lucky my schedule let me leave work to take care of my wife and son. Once I reached my wife Alexa, and she was safely heading home from her work at Yale, after reaching her I was aware that I was genetically programmed to drive from Connecticut to Massachusetts to find my son, and bring him to safety.
Somehow, I reached my ex-wife on a landline in her office. She could not call out from Manhattan, but Dan would be able to call in to her. I reached our son and told him his mom and stepfather were fine uptown and how to call them.
I brought him home that night to sleep in Roxbury in his childhood room, a safe refuge. We made pasta with olive oil, garlic, sausage and grated parmesan for dinner, and watched more explosions in Washington D.C., and a plane went down in a field in Pennsylvania, unaware that night of the heroes and heroines aboard that plane.. Even safe at home, our country had been invaded, and none of us slept very well.
We know where we were on national days and nights of tragedy. I know exactly where I was when an artist was shot outside his home by a psychotic man.
Godspeed. John Lennon. You lost your life at 40, and you lost your mother at 17. The words of Julia are “glimmering, shimmering,” and reach me today. I am grateful to remember where I was the night John Lennon…
VIDEO: The Night John Lennon Died