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Medical Investigators Review The Struggle To Save Robert F Kennedy's Life After Shooting

Robert F. Kennedy, seen in thought in the cabinet room of the White House, January 1964. The senator was shot by an assassin on June 5, 1968, passing away about 26 hours later. Wikimedia Commons

Fifty years ago this month, as Senator and Democratic presidential nominee candidate Robert F Kennedy turned to shake hands with a busboy in the kitchen of the Los Angeles Ambassador Hotel, an unhinged man named Sirhan Sirhan stepped out of the crowd and fired eight shots from a .22-caliber revolver at point-blank range. One bullet struck RFK’s neck, one entered and exited his right shoulder, and one entered his skull next to his right ear and lodged in his brain.

In the horrific 26 hours that followed, Kennedy was transported to two hospitals, examined by numerous skilled doctors, and underwent emergency cranial surgery before ultimately passing away from a traumatic brain injury. 


After examining official eyewitness accounts, medical records, and the autopsy findings, a team of physicians from Duke University School of Medicine have now concluded that Senator Robert F. Kennedy was treated according to the leading medical practices of the time. And, despite the ramblings of many conspiracy theorists, there is no evidence that indicates the chain of events unfolded differently than what was reported. 

Writing in the Journal of Neurosurgery, researchers assert that there was nothing else the emergency medical teams could have done to save RFK, aside from transporting him to a suitable facility faster. 

“It is the authors’ opinion that Senator Kennedy received aggressive and appropriate care in line with the standard of the day.” 

“As far as we can tell from the available data, if the injuries were to be sustained today, Senator Kennedy would undergo surgery similar to the craniotomy performed in 1968.”


After he was shot, the politician lay on the floor, albeit in the presence of five doctors who rushed to his aid, for 17 minutes before he was put on a stretcher. About 15 minutes later, due to a miscommunication with the dispatcher, he arrived at Central Receiving Hospital, a facility that was not equipped to perform the necessary emergency procedures. The authors note that RFK didn’t arrive at the intensive care unit of Good Samaritan Hospital until 1:00am – 45 minutes after Sirhan’s attack – though they decline to speculate on how the delay impacted the tragic outcome.

At 3:10am, the neurosurgeons at Good Samaritan began a craniotomy to remove skull and bullet fragments, as well as dead tissue, from his right cerebellum and occipital lobe. According to the study, during the operation, Kennedy was given mannitol (a type of sugar alcohol) and dexamethasone (a steroid), which eventually stopped the severe intracranial bleeding.

Artist’s representation of Senator Kennedy’s injuries (lateral [left] and posterior [right] views), based on data from the autopsy report and testimony, as no imaging studies are available for review. Megan Llewellyn/Duke University

“This was standard at the time the senator was treated,” the authors state. “Mannitol remains a mainstay of therapy in the treatment of posttraumatic cerebral edema, but recent evidence argues against the use of steroids in the setting of nontumoral cerebral edema. The senator was placed on a cooling blanket, we presume to prevent fever and assist with management of cerebral edema.”

According to the current literature, there is still no consensus on the benefit of inducing hypothermia in cases of traumatic brain injury, yet its importance in fever prevention is known.


They add that if RFK was treated today, he would have also received a brain drainage device to lower intracranial pressure, antiepileptic medications, and his surgeon would have had an easier time thanks to the invention of advanced imaging technology and operating microscopes.

However, even with these advances, they report that gunshot wounds like RFK's still carry a high mortality rate. 


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