Joe Sabatier, M.D., was a Tulane medical student, who in 1935 was assigned to work at Our Lady of the Lake hospital in Baton Rouge. “I’m not sure what my title was,” Sabatier recalls, “but I think I was really an assistant to an orderly.” The labor supply was inadequate so medical students were pressed to do the work of orderlies, including the less desirable tasks such as inserting catheters in male patients. “But I learned how to do it,” Sabatier adds.
September 8 of that year would’ve been a slow, forgettable Sunday until it became historic as vehicles began to race from the state capital located on the opposite side of Capitol Lake to the emergency room.
Sabatier was off that day and had gone to the movies with a group of nurses. As the gang walked back they noticed the speeding autos. “I went to my room,” Sabatier recalls, “where I got a message to report to the hospital at once.” Word spread quickly: Huey Long had been shot.
At the time Long was a U.S. Senator who held a dangerous amount of control over the affairs of Louisiana. Through his handpicked governor, and with the support of many of his personally selected legislators, Long was the closest experience of a dictator that an American state had ever felt. Throughout history it has sometimes been the fate of dictators that when they couldn’t be removed at the polls, they were removed in other ways.
“When I got to the hospital they were preparing for the operation,” Sabatier says. “I was told I was going to be a scrub nurse.” Soon Long was wheeled into the room. “He was perfectly conscious.”
At 92, Sabatier may be the only survivor who was at the hospital the day that Long was shot. His memories include that of the long line of politicians who made their pilgrimage to see the wounded senator. Historians would later write that Long might have survived the bullet wound except that the operation was bungled and the attending surgeons overlooked that Long’s colon had been pierced. “Later when people at the hospital began to talk,” Sabatier remembers, “they generally concluded that he died of internal bleeding.” Sabatier adds that one of the senator’s personal physicians was in New Orleans and in those days the road trip to Baton Rouge was still a slow one.
Long lingered for two days while cronies continued to line the halls of the hospital. He died 72 years ago this month: Sept. 10, 1935.
For all the commotion that the assassination brought to the hospital, Sabatier recalls that Long’s funeral was an even bigger crisis. “Baton Rouge was so filled with people from all social strata that the hospital was kept busy.” Sabatier adds that many funeral-goers, quite a few who were elderly, were brought in suffering from various conditions.
A native of Crowley, Sabatier went on to have a distinguished career as a physician, spending a large part of his career in management at West Jefferson Hospital. He settled in New Orleans where he now spends his retirement.
He is amazingly spry for his age and looks to be at least 25 years younger, with a lean body and a head of hair that’s not entirely gray. He has witnessed history and accumulated wisdom, including one major discovery: “I have done research and I think I’ve learned the secret of longevity,” he teases. Then he whispers: “Selective choosing of your ancestry.”
Not being a dictator helps, too.