Billings Surgeon recalls treating late president

2004-06-07T23:00:00Z Billings Surgeon recalls treating late presidentDANA MOSS PULIS For The Gazette The Billings Gazette
June 07, 2004 11:00 pm  • 

Even though it was 15 years ago, Billings neurosurgeon Dr. John Moseley remembers the phone call vividly.

He was the head of neurosurgery at St. John's Hospital in Beverly Hills, Calif., when the phone call came from a physician in the radiology department.

"John, whatever you are doing, drop it and come over immediately."

Moseley entered the elevators and was immediately flanked by two large men who escorted him down the hall.

When they entered a room, he saw President Ronald Reagan and Nancy Reagan.

Reagan's mild injury

It was the spring of 1989 and Reagan had just left office. While on a trip a month earlier in Mexico, Reagan had fallen from a horse and been mildly injured. Although a previous CAT scan showed all was well, Reagan was having headaches. His new X-rays showed a tiny blood clot.

Moseley had the room full of people clear out and found himself alone with the former leader of the free world for about 45 minutes.

"I asked him, 'Is it OK to ask you certain questions?' He laughed and told me, 'Ask whatever you want, Doc.' "

The doctor found Reagan to be fine, and normally would have followed up with an appointment a week or so later. However, Reagan was scheduled for a speech out of state. St. John's Hospital, a sister hospital of St. Vincent Healthcare, was the hospital of choice for the Reagans and the one nearest their home in Bel Aire, Calif.

A few weeks later, Moseley learned Reagan had the clot removed while traveling near the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn. The clot had grown after Reagan bumped his head on an airplane door, and his headaches had increased in intensity and frequency.

Moseley and his wife, Cheryl, a registered nurse, were summoned to the Reagan's home three more times to care for the former president. His experiences with Reagan and his wife would leave Moseley feeling like, "I had known them my entire life."

Each visit would bring experiences strikingly different than expected. What Moseley would anticipate to be a 15-minute checkup would turn to a two-hour visit. Reagan would tell stories, jokes and relate experiences. "It was obvious he loved to chat," Moseley said.

Acting stories

On one occasion, Reagan took Moseley into his personal bedroom to show him the view from a window where he could still see his "struggling actor" apartment. Reagan then shared some of his acting stories.

Although he was 83 at the time, Reagan was fit with "not an ounce of body fat" Moseley said. "He had the body of a man half his age."

Moseley described Nancy as a very loving and supportive wife who both doted over her husband and protected him. Once after his brain surgery Moseley received a call from Nancy who wanted to know when her husband could get his hair cut.

"I told her he could get it cut whenever he wants," Moseley said. "She told me, 'Doctor, you don't understand. When he gets his haircut, a whole volume of people go with him. It is not just a haircut, it is an experience.' "

During his house calls, Moseley recalled Reagan, or Nancy, would answer their own door, and when they were finished, Reagan would walk him to his car and often linger telling stories.

"Nancy came out of the house one time and said, 'Ronny, let these poor people go. They probably have things to do.' "

Moseley dismisses rumors that Reagan's Alzheimer's began while he was in office.

"If anyone can say he didn't have Alzheimer's, his treating neurosurgeon can, and he didn't."

Though they didn't continue their relationship with the Reagans after his post-operative care, Moseley did have one experience he still treasures and the evidence of it still is framed on his wall.

While looking for a house in a country club area, the Moseley's were asked for character references. The doctor jokingly told the country club officials about treating Reagan and asked if he would do for a recommendation.

The country club did, in fact, write Reagan's staff to check on Moseley's character. The reply came in the form of a letter from Reagan's chief of staff with many flattering statements and recommendations of the doctor.

"It was just another example of how he did more than he had to," Moseley said.

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