Originally published in the Albany Times-Union on March 31, 2011.
WASHINGTON, D.C. — March 30, 1981, started out like another routine day for Robyn Ringler, a nurse on the medical surgical floor of George Washington University Hospital in the nation’s capital.
Around 2:30 p.m., all of the nursing call lights came on.
“I went into the rooms and everyone is pointing at the TV saying ‘President Reagan has been shot and he’s coming, he’s here at our hospital,'” Ringler said.
The day changed forever many people’s lives, including Ringler’s. She later earned a law degree, became a gun-control advocate and opened East Line Books in Clifton Park in 2008. She lives in Ballston Lake.
“I took away from this experience a real appreciation for what a family goes through when they have experienced gun violence because, especially those first several days, he really wasn’t a president anymore, he was a patient like any other patient,” Ringler said.
On Wednesday, she returned to Washington to appear on Capitol Hill to lobby for tougher gun laws with Reagan’s press secretary, James Brady, who was shot in the head during the assassination attempt.
Even 30 years later, Ringler clearly remembers caring for the nation’s 40th president.
That day, Reagan was leaving the Washington Hilton Hotel when John Hinkley Jr. stepped out of the crowd and fired six shots from a .22 caliber pistol. Three people were hit directly — Brady, Secret Service agent Tim McCarthy and Washington police officer Thomas Delahanty. Reagan was hit by a bullet that ricocheted off the presidential limousine.
Ringler said she never thought she would see the President, but on the second day she learned he was being moved to her floor, which had a bulletproof room with a flat roof outside for security.
“The first two nights I cared for him, he was in terrible condition,” said Ringler. “By the time my shift ended that (first) night I truly wondered if I would ever see him again. He was on the verge of dying.”
By the fourth day of Reagan’s 10-day stay, “You could see that he had gotten over the hump, that he was going to recover,” she said.
Ringler said once it was clear the President was going to recover, the mood lightened around the hospital, First Lady Nancy Reagan relaxed and “it became fun.” The hospital staff even got to enjoy perks like steak and lobster cooked for the White House staff. Ringler was able to keep a “big, beautiful silk-covered box” sent from the King of Morocco.
Although Secret Service agents watched over the President, Ringler was able to spend a half-hour alone with him and the First Lady when Nancy Reagan asked for a back massage.
“Usually, whenever we drew blood or hung the intravenous antibiotics, the Secret Service was always watching us, but this time Nancy closed the door,” said Ringler.
During that time, a newscast continually showed video of the shooting.
“It seemed that Nancy wanted to turn it off but President Reagan really was interested in watching and trying to understand why the shooter did what he did,” she recalled. “In his words, he would say ‘What was this guy’s beef?’ ”
In the 1990s, Ringler became an activist for stricter gun control laws. She is working with Brady, who suffered a brain injury that left him partially paralyzed, and his wife, Sarah, to lobby for bipartisan support for a ban on magazine clips that hold more than 10 rounds.
In 1993, the Bradys successfully lobbied for the Brady Handgun Prevention Act, which instituted federal background checks before a person may purchase firearms and prevented certain people, including felons and the mentally ill, from legally buying a gun.