A Presidential Experience

Dr. John WeigeltIn February 1990, Dr. John Weigelt, MD, DVM, professor of surgery and chief of trauma and critical surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin, found himself aboard the USS Nassau off the shore of Barranquilla, Colombia, preparing for a possible medical emergency involving the U.S. President George H.W. Bush. 

So how did a surgeon then living in Dallas end up accompanying a U.S. President to Colombia? That involves a bit of a history lesson.

When George H. W. Bush was in the White House, his classmate Burton Lee served as the White House physician, which is a position the President chooses and sometimes keeps unfilled. He also had four military physicians, one from each branch of the U.S. Armed Forces, that made up the White House medical staff. Dr. Lee, an oncologist, identified that there was a lack of trauma expertise within these ranks. Dr. Weigelt says that Dr. Lee used to joke that he wouldn’t be very helpful because he doubted that the President would die from cancer on a short trip.

So the White House asked the American College of Surgeons for recommendations of surgeons that could potentially travel with the president when he went to unsecured areas. Usually, the President would travel near a military facility where medical care could be provided. But occasionally, the President would travel to an area not near a military facility.

Dr. Weigelt was one of the three surgeons nominated, along with Dr. Chip Rice, a Naval reservist, and Dr. Art Trask, a private practitioner trauma surgeon from West Palm Beach, Fla.. At the time, Dr. Weigelt, was the trauma medical director and Parkland Memorial Hospital in Dallas.

Weigelt and George H.W. BushThe first time the unit was activated was for President Bush’s trip to Cartagena, Colombia, for a meeting on the control of illicit drug trafficking, with the presidents of Colombia, Bolivia and Peru.

When Dr. Trask went to inspect the ship that would be their medical home for the trip, the USS Nassau, he found that the equipment was from the Korean Conflict era, meaning there were no vascular instruments and no thoracic surgery capability. These were important advancements in trauma care that the team felt were critical to a successful mission. The three surgeons split up the needed equipment and provided it when the time came.

The journey would take them to Barranquilla, just north of Cartagena on Colombia’s north coast. Barranquilla was the closest they could bring air support to Cartagena, according to the agreement with the Colombian government.

When they arrived to Barranquilla, they boarded helicopters to take them to the USS Nassau, which was docked 12 miles off the coast of Cartagena. The ship, which could hold up to 3,000 personnel, was just decommissioned in 2011. “What we didn’t realize until we got on the ship was that there was an imminent threat to the President’s life,” Dr. Weigelt says. “It was a little tense while he was on the ground.”

One of the surgeons went on shore everyday to inspect the area where the President was going to have meetings and then plan for what would happen if trauma care was needed. They were planning for a hot visit, which meant whoever drew the short straw would sit on a helicopter that was live the entire visit. Dr. Weigelt never drew the short straw.

The surgeons spent much of those three days getting acquainted with the other medical professionals and planning for possible scenarios. For example, the beds were secured to the floor and the top of the bed, where a patient’s head would go, was near the wall. That presented a problem for respiratory emergencies, so the team made the decision to flip how the patient would lay in the bed just in case a respiratory emergency presented itself.

Fortunately, the visit went well and the surgeons were never needed. They were almost activated one more time after Nelson Mandela was imprisoned in South Africa. President Bush was going to go to try and negotiate his release, but he was released before the trip had to be made.

“We were part of history that was no longer needed,” Dr. Weigelt says. “We drifted off into anonymity, but what I can tell you is that we changed the White House medical staff forever.” Although the three surgeons continued during President Bill Clinton’s first term, they were never activated. During his second term, they were deactivated because they now always had a surgeon as part of the White House medical staff.

Although his days accompanying presidents were over, Dr. Weigelt remained involved in the care of presidents through the Capital Program, which makes sure the President has medical care locally when traveling throughout the country. The program was started by the American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma, of which Dr. Weigelt was the chairman for six years.

When President Donald Trump traveled recently to Kenosha, Froedtert Hospital was the designated medical facility and would have been the place Trump headed had he needed medical care during his four hours on the ground.

Being involved in the behind-the-scenes care of presidents is something Dr. Weigelt won’t soon forget. “It’s an interesting sideline to presidential history, and it was an interesting experience for me personally.” Dr. Weigelt received a Distinguished Alumnus Award – Non-Practitioner from the Michigan State University College of Veterinary Medicine in May 2017. Interestingly enough, Dr. Weigelt got a doctor of veterinary medicine before attending medical school at MCW. He says his veterinary training built the foundation of his medical career.

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