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Dr. Neal Kassell was standing by the door to the operating room when then-Sen. Joe Biden was wheeled in for a second aneurysm operation in May 1988.
Biden reached up from the gurney and grabbed the neurosurgeon’s arm.
“He looked me in the eye and said, ‘Doc, do a good job, because someday I’m going to be president,’” Kassell told The Daily Beast on Saturday, after his former patient’s prediction had come true.
Biden rode the gurney on into the OR at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and Kassell followed once Biden had been anesthetized for his second microsurgical craniotomy.
The first operation had been that February after a scan had located two aneurysms at the base of Biden’s brain, the larger to the right, the smaller to the left. Kassell and a fellow neurosurgeon, Dr. Eugene George, decided to begin with the larger one. It was liable to burst at any moment, with possibly fatal results.
Biden had withdrawn from the 1987 race for the Democratic nomination for president five months before. His chances of surviving that first operation and thereby having any future at all had been estimated at only 50-50.
The first operation began with a surgical team cutting a hole in the top of Biden’s skull and removing the plug of bone as if it were, by Kassell’s subsequent description, “the top of a cookie jar.” Kassell then used a microscope to guide a probe between the brain and the skull. He located the ballooned artery and was applying a spring clip to it when his view through the microscope was suddenly occluded by blood.
The aneurysm had burst and Biden might very well have died right there on the table had the blood shot into his brain. It instead went the other way, and Kassell was able to clear the lens and finish securing the clip before there was any damage.
In the recovery room, Biden was able to wiggle his fingers and toes and compute from a wall clock that the operation had taken nine hours. He would later write that he had come close enough to dying that he realized “a single moment of failure—even one so public and wounding as the end of my presidential campaign—could not determine my epitaph.”
By the time of the second operation three months later, Biden was again ready to turn fate into destiny. The moment came when he gazed into Kassell’s eyes and made the prediction that some might have assumed to be at least partly in jest.
Biden ran for the Democratic nomination in 2008, dropped out—and became Barack Obama’s vice-president in 2009. He might have run again for president in 2016 had he not been still unnerved by son Beau Biden’s death from brain cancer at Walter Reed the year before.
Joe instead focused on launching the White House Cancer Moonshot initiative, and Kassell agreed to serve on its Blue Ribbon Panel. Hillary Clinton ran for president, got the nomination, and lost to Donald Trump.
When the pandemic hit, Kassell was one of thousands of doctors who were deeply offended and alarmed by Trump’s anti-scientific approach. Trump grew only more aggressively ignorant as nearly a quarter million Americans died of COVID-19.
“Unimaginable,” Kassell told The Daily Beast.
Thanks in part to Kassell, Biden was around to make another presidential run. He cited the science and wore a mask and sought to preserve social distancing as he proceeded to win the Democratic nomination.
Donald Trump Jr. and his ilk cited Biden’s past brain operations as proof he was not up to the job. Kassell retorted that he had seen Biden’s brain and it was just fine; the clips still in his brain actually made it less likely those arteries would rupture.
Meanwhile, Trump learned nothing after he caught COVID-19 and had a brief stay of his own at Walter Reed. He remained indifferent to the ever-mounting number of unlucky souls who did not recover as he had. He announced that the pandemic was all but over, saying “we’re rounding a turn,” even as the county was witnessing a record spike in cases.
But such a depressing number of Americans still supported him that the early results on Election Day raised the possibility that he would get another term before Biden pulled ahead.
On Saturday, four days after an election that was initially too close to call, multiple TV networks declared Biden the winner. Trump had proven unable to dismiss Biden votes as easily as he had dismissed COVID-19 cases. Those of us who had dreaded a second Trump term welcomed what felt like deliverance such as his favorite poet, Seamus Heaney, described in verse written for a Northern Ireland theatre company in 1990.
“History says don’t hope
On this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up.
And hope and history rhyme.”
Word that justice had indeed risen up to couple hope with history reached Kassell at home on Saturday. His daughter, Nicole Kassell, a film director who won an Emmy for HBO’s Watchmen, sent her father a video of the spontaneous celebrations near her home in Harlem. Cars were honking. People were cheering and dancing in the streets.
“Pandemonium,” the doctor said in an approving tone.
Dr. Kassell recounted to The Daily Beast what Biden had said to him that day 32 years ago while being wheeled in for the second brain operation. The Daily Beast noted that the successful efforts by Kassell and his surgical team in addressing the two aneurysms had kept Biden among the living. And that now meant we will have a new president who will actually address the pandemic.
Kassell responded with a line from the Bible.
“Save one life, you save the world.”