By Peg Eastman 

Now that most of the final documents about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy have been released, the subject has once again become national news. Those who were alive then remember vividly that it was only a few days before Thanksgiving 1963, when America was jolted out of its post-war complacency with the news that the president had been shot in Dallas while riding in a presidential motorcade with his wife and Governor and Mrs. John Connally. An hour later, came the shocking announcement that the president was dead — a bullet had destroyed his brain.

As the grim details hit the airwaves, the world gradually learned that the president would be flown back to Washington accompanied by his bereaved widow and newly sworn in President Lyndon B. Johnson. Because Kennedy had been a naval officer during World War II, Jackie Kennedy requested that his autopsy be performed at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland.

Meanwhile, at Bethesda Naval Hospital, everyone had “lost their enthusiasm for work.” All eyes were on the television, but no one dreamed that they would play a key role in this national drama. The staff witnessed via TV the gray standard military coffin being loaded on an airplane while Jackie Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson watched nearby.

When the presidential plane landed at Andrews Air Force Base, the gray coffin was transferred into an equally drab, gray Navy ambulance. It was only then that the doctors at Bethesda realized with a sinking feeling that the presidential entourage was heading toward their hospital. One of the physicians on staff was Don Castell, a senior resident who had joined the U.S. Navy Medical Corps after completing his medical studies at George Washington University. One of his responsibilities was 18-hour shifts at Bethesda Naval Hospital. He was on call as the senior resident in internal medicine when the news broke.

While the vehicles slowly made their way to Bethesda, an ever-increasing crowd of press and curiosity seekers assembled in front of the hospital’s emergency room entrance. Inside, people began giving orders and thus a young doctor participated in one of the most historic events of the 20th century.

Born before WWII, David (Don) Overton Castell grew up in Silver Spring Maryland, the youngest of three children. His family experienced the trauma of having both of his siblings suffer untimely deaths. His sister died young and his brother dropped dead unexpectedly just after Don and he had a snowball fight, leaving Don an only child at age 11. Looking back, Don thinks that these tragic losses contributed to his wanting to become a doctor.

Just before his brother’s death, the boys had joined the District of Columbia Boys Club band and in tribute to their friend, the young musicians played an integral role in the funeral services. Don continued to play the trumpet and eventually became the best player in Maryland. He also was a wrestler. After high school, he studied physical therapy at George Washington University. While there, he realized that his real interest was pursuing a career in medicine.

This decision was influenced in part by the accomplishments of his second cousin, Richard Castell, one of the most respected and popular doctors on the staff of George Washington University. Dr. Castell had a prestigious practice at the Willard Hotel, where one of his patients was President Harry S. Truman. It is coincidental that his cousin’s favorite restaurant was Harvey’s, the preferred eatery of another assassinated president, Abraham Lincoln.

Don watched the crowd assembling outside the emergency room entrance and noticed the ambulance stop and remain motionless as the crowd grew larger. Then it suddenly drove away and he realized that it had served as a decoy while the presidential convoy entered the back entrance.

Don hastened to the morgue where he was stopped by two hulking, fully armed Marines in full dress uniform who snapped to attention and blocked the doorway. A few minutes later, he was summoned to the office of Captain Robert O. Canada, USN, commanding officer of the hospital. Don was informed that he was to “be available to the Kennedy family’s needs.” Basically, they were his responsibility. He quickly joined Jackie, Robert, Teddy and a NIH forensic pathologist in the VIP suite located on the 17th floor.

The first thing that he noticed was the blood stains and brain tissue on Jackie’s handsome pink suit. Bobby was the family spokesman and his major concern was what Kennedy’s body would be donned in after the autopsy was performed. He enquired where the morgue was and accompanied by president’s chauffer, followed Don to the hospital basement. The Marine guards snapped to attention once again and Bobby informed them that they were bringing the clothes Kennedy was to wear when leaving the hospital.

Without fanfare, one of the Marines swung open the door and allowed the chauffer enter. When he returned empty-handed, his face was ashen. Thinking that he was going to faint, Don enquired if he were okay, to which he replied in a barely audible stammer, “I never saw anything like that.” The men then returned to the VIP suite.

All non-essential personnel were excused from the autopsy. Only Dr. John H. Ebersole was permitted to take X-rays. The autopsy lasted four hours. It was near midnight when the presidential entourage departed and Don returned to his quarters.

After his brush with history, Don completed his residency and military obligations and began practicing academic gastroenterology at some of the most prestigious institutions in the nation. He was on the faculty of George Washington University, the Uniform Services University of Health Sciences at Bethesda, Wake Forest University, Thomas Jefferson Medical School and the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently on the faculty of the Medical University of South Carolina where he is establishing a chair in gastroenterology. At the beginning of the 21st century, he was recognized as “the pope of esophagology,” and was elected president of the American Gastroenterological Association, receiving its highest award, the Friedenwald Medal. He has co-authored 600 scientific papers and trained numerous prominent professors.

Back to 1963: People from coast to coast grieved the loss of their young president and his funeral was the most elaborate witnessed in modern times. The assassination was thoroughly investigated and in time, the findings were released — but not everyone was satisfied with the results. Certain redactions and omissions have caused a multiplicity of conspiracy theories that linger to this day. The most recent release will not solve them all.

The magic of the Kennedy name continues to resonate and friends have urged Don to publish his unique role in the Kennedy saga. Let us wish him well in that noble pursuit.

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.