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By the time an assassin’s bullet killed Dr. Martin Luther King on April 4, 1968, the much-loved – and much-hated – SCLC leader knew he might never see his daughters grow up. Once he entered the spotlight during the 1955-56 Montgomery, Alabama bus boycotts, King and his family lived through his remaining years like a city under siege, constantly calculating acceptable risks and trying to anticipate the next threat.

King was a target of violence throughout his non-violent crusade for civil rights, and 10 years before his assassination, he had a very close brush with death. He continued his work for another decade, partly due to the skills of Goldie Brangman, CRNA , MEd, the nurse anesthesiologist who treated him in 1958.

Brangman worked at Harlem Hospital for 45 years and directed its nurse anesthesia educational program for some three decades, and in 1973 became the first (and to date, only*) Black president of the American Association of Nurse Anesthetists (AANA). In the December 2015 issue of the AANA Journal, she shared her recollections** of that September 20, 1958, day when King was rushed to Harlem Hospital.

In 1958, King’s would-be killer was not a white supremacist but a mentally ill 42-year-old Black woman stirred by the conspiracy theories, anxiety, justifiable paranoia, and mistrust that spread through terrorized Afro-American communities during the “long, hot summer” era of the mid-1960s. Convinced that the civil rights leader was a “communist” and a “flimflam artist who pimped the community,” she armed herself with a pearl-handled letter opener and attended the book signing. When she neared King, she aimed right for his heart and managed to drive her makeshift knife six centimeters into his chest.

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King was rushed to nearby Harlem Hospital with the letter opener still in his chest. His treatment was initially delayed when a bizarre political debate erupted. Being anxious over his reelection chances, New York Governor Harriman initially urged hospital staff to transfer Dr. King to Columbia-Presbyterian or Mount Sinai Hospital.

As the AANA article put it, the governor was worried “that Harlem Hospital was not fit to treat Dr. King, but he also wanted to show respect for the Black community by endorsing Harlem Hospital and its staff.” The vacillating politician was finally persuaded that the future Nobel Peace Prize winner was in good hands.

By 1958, King was already a widely recognized public figure at the center of the increasingly heated debates over segregation and racial injustice. Brangman recalled that their patient was engulfed by a crowd even as he was rushed into surgery. “To this day,” she said, “I don’t understand why they allowed so many people in the OR.” The team examined his wound and found that the weapon had penetrated King’s sternum. Brangman said the tip of the letter opener was tightly lodged between Dr. King’s innominate artery and aorta. Her team was on edge, knowing that “Every breath would move the blade.” She is confident that “The time saved by [performing the surgery] then and there at Harlem Hospital did save King’s life.”

The AANA article reminded readers that the danger of the situation was exacerbated by the fact that CRNAs had little technological assistance in the 1950s, so thoracic surgery did not necessarily include mechanical ventilation or paralysis.

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Brangman recalled, “You bagged them in those days; you could sense [respiratory] changes like compliance that way.” They used manual blood pressure determinations and monitored their patients by “listening, looking, and feeling. You had your hand on the patient the entire time.”

Once Brangman and anesthesiologist Dr. Helene Meyer placed King under anesthesia, surgeons worked for over two hours to remove the letter opener. The surgery left King with a scar, a constant reminder and warning that he could be taken at any moment. As he told a friend, “Each morning as I brush my teeth and wash my face, I am reminded by the cross-shaped scar on my chest that each day could be my last day on this earth.”

Thanks to Harlem Hospital’s team, King survived his first significant brush with death for ten crucial, history-making years, and millions of Americans breathed a sigh of relief. A white admirer from White Plains, New York, was moved to cheer the minister’s recovery in a letter that became famous:

“I read in the paper of your misfortune and of your suffering. And I read that if you had sneezed, you would have died. And I’m simply writing to say that I’m so happy you didn’t sneeze.”

The earnest missive delighted King, so he shared it with various audiences over the next decade. In fact, during his final speech in Memphis, Tennessee, he read it aloud once more and added, “I want to say tonight that I, too, am happy that I didn’t sneeze.”

While King may have been unaware that in 1958, his CRNA’s skilled “listening, looking, and feeling” helped preserve his life, nurse anesthetists can take pride in knowing that one of their own played a key walk-on role in history.

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**A special thank-you to Ebony magazine for saving and sharing the 2015 AANA story on Brangman.

Koren Thomas
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