Everything changes: Robyn DeSantis Ringler

Ringler - Clinton.jpg

Robyn is the one on the left.

Everyone has a moment in life when things change. Sometimes we know it right away, other times we only recognize it looking back. With the turning of the year, we're taking some time to listen to people's stories about the moments that changed them, and what they've learned.

Robyn DeSantis Ringler began her career as a nurse in Washington DC in the early 1980s. Today, she's a lawyer, volunteering her time to help refugees being held at the Albany County jail.

The journey from nurse to activist to lawyer began with a VIP patient: President Ronald Reagan.

Ringler was one of Reagan's nurses following the assassination attempt by John Hinkley Jr., and the things she observed during his stay prompted questions she had never considered before -- questions that led to a lifetime of activism.
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They moved President Reagan up to my floor, where one room had bullet proof windows and a flat roof outside those windows for a SWAT team. The hospital had built that room purposefully knowing that a president might end up in there one day.

So we created a presidential suite. We moved 16 patients from a whole hallway and created a nursing station. We had a room for the personal physician from the White House; a room for José, who was the military man carrying "the football" at President Reagan's side at all times; a room for Nancy Reagan; and of course that room for President Reagan -- for 10 days.

Robyn Ringler:JerryParr
Nurse Robyn DeSantis with Secret Service agent Jerry Parr.

The first two days it was really scary. He had a gray pallor and he had the look of a man who was dying. I was very frightened that he was going to die the first night when I went home after the evening shift.

I ran out and got a Washington Post early that morning and in the Washington Post the hospital spokesperson was quoted as saying that the president was doing just fine. And at 24-years-old, that was the day I learned not to automatically believe everything you read, because I had been there. And the next night I went back for the evening shift, three to eleven, and he again spiked a high fever. He was disoriented. He was agitated and it could have gone either way. But the third day was just a huge relief and a joy because by the third day he was sitting up.

Senators and Vice President Bush and Barbara Bush would come in and they really spent time talking with us. They were lovely. And all kinds of dignitaries came and, oh, the food was amazing. He actually got this giant box of candy five deep and candy from the king of Morocco and it was a beautiful satin or linen some kind of gorgeous fabric. And I heard Mrs. Reagan say to one of the Secret Service agents pass the candy around and when everyone's done eating it give it to one of the nurses. And I ran up to the Secret Service agent and said, "Can I please have that box?" And so I still own this very large box from the king of Morocco to President Reagan.

Ringler letter from Reagan.jpg

Looking back I do feel that President Reagan was responsible for decisions that created this terrible disparity among classes. But also, over ten days, I grew to love the president as a person. He was kind and funny, and once he felt better, it often felt like our roles were reversed. While I was used to making patients feel comfortable in the hospital setting, in this situation, it was President Reagan who tried to make us feel comfortable.

Once, I found him watching the news. Mrs. Reagan, begged him to change the channel. Over and over, President Reagan watched the screen in wonder as his body took a bullet. "I can't understand it," he said. "What's his beef?"

But I wondered at the time -- when I was thinking that President Reagan might die in front of me -- where did... how did John Hinckley get the gun? I had never really asked a question like that to myself before. I'd never really thought about that kind of thing. But it stayed with me for a long time.

I worked as a nurse for six years. I wanted finally to do something a little differently because being a floor nurse is exhausting -- in my 20s that was fine. I loved my job so much but I couldn't see myself as an administrator. And I like helping people so I went to law school.

I remember believing that combining nursing with the law would allow me to help people in a unique way. It was years later that I found a niche in lobbying for safe gun laws, learning about legislation, how it must be written to avoid loopholes, how to talk to lawmakers to get them to understand that the right legislation could save lives.

jim brady and robyn ringler
Jim Brady and Robyn Ringler

When Columbine happened I was the mother of a middle schooler and I just flew into action. I called up the Brady Campaign [To Prevent Gun Violence] because, of course, Jim Brady had been severely wounded [in the assassination attempt on Ronald Reagan] and I had talked with him and his wife Sara in the hospital. They'd be in the hallways and I'd stop and say hello. I called them and started working with them and I called New Yorkers Against Gun Violence and I joined them and became the head of the Capital District chapter of New Yorkers Against Gun Violence. And I worked with them for about 10 years. I was invited by Sarah Brady and Carolyn McCarthy -- a Congresswoman from New York whose son and husband were shot on the Long Island Railroad -- to come to Washington DC and lobby.

Robyn Ringler at rally.jpg

My activism started with the guns, and I don't think I would have been so keyed in to the gun issue if I hadn't had a patient -- yes, he was a very important patient -- but I have a feeling that any patient surrounded by a loving family who had been shot and was close to death probably would have changed me also. It definitely changed me.

Everything changes

+ Jonathan Lajas

+ Alicia Lea

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