Eisenhower’s heart attack and the state of presidential medicine

Even the most powerful man on earth doesn't always get the best medical care

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TORONTO, ON Sep 23, 2015/ Troy Media/ – Most of us probably hew to the assumption that the occupant of the White House gets only the very best medical care. After all, the president is ostensibly the most powerful person on earth. But if you’re up to a spot of disillusionment, take a dip into the details of Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack 60 years ago.

Eisenhower was 64 going on 65 when it happened. On vacation in Colorado in late September 1955, it had been an irritating day for the president. After a couple of hours tending to official business, he’d headed out to engage in his favourite recreation – playing golf – only to find his morning round twice interrupted by phone calls from Washington. And that being the pre-cell phone age, taking the call meant leaving the course and going back to the clubhouse. Then it happened again during the afternoon round, only this time the purported call was a false alarm.

Around 1:30 a.m. the following morning – Saturday, September 24 – Eisenhower awoke with severe chest pain, which he ascribed to indigestion from the onions he’d eaten at lunch the previous day. Initially, he thought that a dose of milk of magnesia would do the trick. But it didn’t.

And it’s from there that the story gets interesting.

Called to the president’s bedside, his personal physician, the 75 year-old Major General Howard Snyder, arrived around 3 a.m., administered something to relieve the pain, and told Eisenhower’s wife to get into bed with him and keep him warm. It wasn’t until early the following afternoon that an electrocardiogram was done, following which Eisenhower was transferred to hospital and placed in an oxygen tent. Rather than acute indigestion, he’d suffered a coronary thrombosis. Or, in layman’s terms, a heart attack.

Given Snyder’s subsequent assertion that he’d accurately assessed Eisenhower’s predicament from the outset, the delay in doing the electrocardiogram and moving him to hospital seems bizarre. More likely, however, Snyder had messed-up in his initial diagnosis. Certainly, that’s the view of Professor Clarence G. Lasby, whose Eisenhower’s Heart Attack (1997) has been described as an “eye-opening account” of both the state of medicine and the surrounding politics in 1955.

But how, one may well ask, could the president’s personal physician make such a fundamental, and potentially fatal, mistake?

Well, for one thing, well-intentioned people do sometimes make mistakes. Sincerity is no guarantee of quality.

And then there’s also the fact that Snyder’s position essentially derived from his long-time personal closeness to Eisenhower. To be sure, he was a qualified and experienced doctor, but at age 75 his skills weren’t exactly state-of-the-art. As one associate later put it, he was really more of “an old-time general practitioner.”

American historian Jean Edward Smith takes it further, noting the parallel between Eisenhower’s situation and that of Franklin D. Roosevelt, whose physician, Admiral Ross McIntire, was also a personal friend. As an ear, nose and throat specialist, McIntire “had no training in cardiology, and allowed Roosevelt’s hypertension to go for years without treatment.”

If there’s a lesson, it’s perhaps this: However reassuring it might be, choosing your doctor on the basis of personal friendship can be a dicey proposition. And if you’re a president or prime minister, the implications go beyond your own comfort or convenience.

It was six weeks before Eisenhower was well enough to return to the White House, and even longer before he was in a position to reassume full-time duties. In the meantime, rumours and speculation were the order of the day.

Media luminaries like James Reston of The New York Times and Eric Sevareid of CBS opined on the unlikelihood of Eisenhower being able to contemplate a second term. And Vice-President Richard Nixon, the guy who stood to inherit should Eisenhower step down, caustically noted how “Men who had hardly cloaked their antipathy before now paid me courtesy calls or sought to give me sagacious advice about my brilliant future.”

Eisenhower, though, had his own agenda. Although professing a preference for laying down his burden by declining to run for a second term, he managed to talk himself out of that idea on the grounds that no suitable successor was available. Like many powerful people before and since, he concluded that he was indispensable. Human nature will do that to you.

Troy Media columnist Pat Murphy worked in the Canadian financial services industry for over 30 years. Originally from Ireland, he has a degree in history and economics.

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