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Saving the Life of JFK, Jr.: A Pediatrician's Place in History

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Among the thousands, maybe millions, of people who will stop what they're doing later this month and reflect on the life of John F. Kennedy, Jr. are two who played vitally important roles in his life.

They've never met and probably never will.

But each has personal and powerful memories of this man whose life was cut short when his single-engine plane crashed in the Atlantic 15 years ago, a tragedy that also killed his wife and sister-in-law.

One, of course, is Caroline Bouvier Kennedy, his sister and the current United States ambassador to Japan. She may attend Mass at one of the more than 30 Catholic churches in Tokyo. Or she may stay in the ambassador's residence and private celebrate John's life and grieve the the loss of her brother.

The other is Ira Seiler, M.D., a retired pediatrician who, when JFK, Jr. was born on Thanksgiving Day in 1960, was a second-year resident at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C. His is one of the most compelling and poignant recollections in my book, a compilation of nearly 100 people's comments on America's 35th President: November 22 1963: Reflections on the Life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy.

Dr. Seiler, who was then 29, arrived at the hospital that day at noon and was informed by Mrs. Kennedy's obstetrician that she was being admitted for an emergency C-section. She was at 38 weeks in her pregnancy and apparently had a blockage of the outlet from the uterus. He was asked to assist, if needed, in the delivery room.

"I remember thinking that if there was a problem with the delivery or with the baby, I would probably be blamed since I was the low-man on the totem pole," Dr. Seiler says.

Later that afternoon, his prophetic comments were realized.

When the child was delivered, Dr. Seiler says, the chief of the hospital's Anesthesia Department held the newborn by the ankles and slapped his buttocks. After doing this for several minutes, the infant's face turned blue. Dr. Seiler knew the child was having difficulty breathing and informed the other physician that the child of the President-elect needed to be intubated.

"He handed the baby to me and I passed a tube into the trachea of the baby," Dr. Seiler says. "I then handed the infant back to him to breathe into the baby, since he was the chief of anesthesia. However, he was a bit nervous and knocked the tube out. I then grabbed the baby back, reinserted the tube and, for about six minutes, breathed air into the lungs of the baby."

Minutes later, JFK, Jr. was transferred to the intensive care nursery, where Dr. Seiler cared for him until the child was allowed to leave -- with his beaming parents -- two weeks later. During the infant's care, Dr. Seiler met the President-elect briefly and later received this note:

"Dear Dr. Seiler:

I want to take this opportunity to thank you and the other members of your efficient hospital staff for the many kindnesses shown to Mrs. Kennedy during her stay at the hospital. Your wonderful care has contributed greatly for her and my new son to leave the hospital in the very best of health.

With every good wish.

Sincerely,

John F. Kennedy"

As the 15th anniversary of JFK Jr.'s death approaches, mainstream and social media will be awash in recollections by friends, former colleagues and girlfriends, such as Madonna and actresses Sarah Jessica Parker and Daryl Hannah, as well as people he worked with on George, the political magazine he co-founded in 1995.

Dr. Seiler, who practiced pediatrics in Northern Virginia for nearly 50 years, likely will pause on July 16 and look back on the events that day in the hospital delivery room. For six minutes, he breathed life into an infant whose life and potential, like those of his father, represent promises -- and legacies -- unfulfilled.

Dean R. Owen, a Seattle-area writer, is the author of November 22, 1963, Reflections on the life, Assassination and Legacy of John F. Kennedy.