HealthLeader

An Online Wellness Magazine produced by The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth)

Dwight David Eisenhower

At war with his body, the 5-star general did not surrender

By the time Dwight David Eisenhower was first elected president in 1952, he was already 62 years old. Despite this, he had had a relatively unremarkable health history. A 1923 appendectomy left him with a predilection to develop lesions between the lining of the abdominal cavity and the scar. In 1949, his doctor told him to cut down on his four-pack-a-day smoking habit. Eisenhower, after just a few days of limiting his cigarettes, quit cold turkey and never smoked again. He attributed his success to developing a scornful attitude toward smokers who couldn’t quit, saying, “I nursed to the utmost my ability to sneer.”

Then, in 1955, while visiting his in-laws in Denver, Eisenhower experienced a myocardial infarctiona heart attack. Treated with heparin at the hospital, Eisenhower was placed on a regimen of Coumadin (an anticoagulant) and a low-fat diet, and told to maintain his weight at 175 pounds. “At the time, we really didn’t have much aftercare for a heart attack other than bed rest, so the president was kept in bed for seven weeks. Therapy was almost nil,” says Francisco Fuentes, MD, professor of cardiology at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) Medical School. A team of four doctors consulted on the case, and while publicly they said that the president had fully recovered, privately Dr. Paul Dudley White, a renowned cardiologist, recommended that Eisenhower not run for re-election in 1956. He was unable to convince Eisenhower, however, and in 1956 Eisenhower was re-elected.

The president had another health drama to get through before the election, however. On May 10, 1956, six months before the election, he was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, a condition that can cause intestinal blockages. Less than a month later, in the early hours of June 8, Eisenhower complained of intestinal pain. His doctor came to the White House and examined him, watched over the president while he fitfully slept, and administered tap water enemas that brought Eisenhower no relief. By 1 a.m. on June 9, the decision was made to operate. X-rays had shown that the small bowel was steadily distending.

Eisenhower's small intestine was inflamed, and an ileostomy—a procedure in which part of the large intestine is brought through the abdominal wall in order to carry feces out of the body—was performed. The president recovered well from the operation and began conducting official business again five days after the surgery.

Eisenhower appeared to have no lingering problems, and for more than a year his health was uneventful. Then, on Nov. 25, 1957, while talking to his secretary, Eisenhower found he couldn’t complete his sentences. After being examined, Eisenhower was told that he had suffered a stroke. His motor and sensory skills were unaffected, but his speech patterns were. The president went into seclusion for three days, trying to overcome the effects of the stroke. He returned to work, but his speech was still a little halting. The next year, Eisenhower gave his vice president, Richard Nixon, a letter that gave the vice president authority to assume the powers of the presidency in case he became incapacitated.

The rest of Eisenhower’s term proved medically uneventful. He settled into a comfortable retirement with his wife, Mamie. In 1966, Eisenhower’s gallbladder, containing 16 gallstones, was removed. The surgery went well and the former president was discharged after 15 days in the hospital.

The end was near, however. Between April and August, 1968, Eisenhower experienced four heart attacks and 14 cardiac arrests. “If someone survives one heart attack, the chances that they will experience another one are very high,” explains Fuentes. Eisenhower recovered from each of them, but the damage done to his heart was irreversible. His energy was low, and he was restricted to three 45-minute periods out of bed each day. Despite this precaution, his heart continued to weaken. On March 28, 1969, Dwight David Eisenhower, 5-star general and two-time president of the United States, died at Walter Reed Army Hospital in Washington, D.C. at the age of 78.

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