Did JFK back pain cost his life?

October 15, 2017

On Oct. 26, the federal government will release the last of the secret records on the Kennedy Assassination. Whatever revelations emerge from the estimated 3,600 files, one signature fact will remain: Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman in Dealey Plaza. Still, new perspectives on the tragedy continue to surface, even after 50 years.

On Oct. 26, the federal government will release the last of the secret records on the Kennedy Assassination. Whatever revelations emerge from the estimated 3,600 files, one signature fact will remain: Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman in Dealey Plaza. Still, new perspectives on the tragedy continue to surface, even after 50 years.

One of the most intriguing discoveries appears at frame 312 of the Zapruder film, one-eighteenth of a second before the final gunshot shatters President John F. Kennedy’s head.

At frame 312, the President and Texas Governor John Connally have both been wounded: Kennedy in the neck and Connally in the chest. Then there is a curious dichotomy. Connally swivels to his left and collapses into his wife’s lap, while Kennedy remains upright. Why?

As we now know, Kennedy was wearing a back brace in Dallas. JFK’s back problems were epic-osteoporosis, degenerative disc disease, and compression fractures. He also underwent spinal surgeries. One operation brought him so close to the brink that he was ministered last rites-one of three times he faced that ritual, including the final time at Parkland Hospital.

On Nov. 22, 1963, Kennedy wore not only the back brace, but also a six-inch-wide elastic bandage around his upper legs and lower torso in a figure-eight fashion to lend extra support.

 

 

Why is this important?

In the run-up to the 1988 presidential campaign, Time magazine devoted its May 18, 1987 cover to the Gary Hart scandal. Hart, a U.S. Senator from Colorado and front-runner for the Democratic nomination, had seen his campaign derailed by an extramarital affair.

Included in the report was a sidebar by presidential scholar Hugh Sidey on the subject of presidential indulgences.

In one passage, Sidey wrote: “One insider claimed that Kennedy reinjured his weakened back during a bedroom tussle at a party in Bing Crosby’s Palm Springs house, which the president was using in September 1963, thus forcing him to return to a rigid back brace. That brace held him erect in his limousine two months later in Dallas after the first gunshot struck him. The second shot killed the still upright president.”

Sidey’s words raise some disturbing “what-if” questions. Had Kennedy not been wearing these accoutrements during the motorcade, would he have toppled over after being shot through the neck the way Connally did after he was shot through the chest? Would Kennedy have survived just the neck wound?

 

There is debate about this in medical circles, because the neck contains so much vital anatomy-spinal cord, carotid arteries, jugular veins, and a plexus of nerves that regulates such essential functions as respiration (phrenic) and heart rate (vagus). Kennedy could have been rendered a quadriplegic or needed assistance with breathing or afflicted with a cardiac arrhythmia.

On the other hand, Connally sustained damage to a vital organ-his right lung-by the same bullet that traversed Kennedy’s neck. He survived to live a normal life and even ran for president in 1980.

If by some miracle Kennedy had survived the neck injury and been able to continue governing, how would his presidency have bent the curve of our nation’s history, particularly our growing involvement in Southeast Asia?

There are many dimensions to the question raised in the title of this essay, but as with other aspects of the Kennedy Assassination, finding answers that are dispositive is like trying to calculate pi to termination. With the Kennedy Assassination, there is no termination, only more mystery leaving us to ponder what might have been.