President Eisenhower’s $14 Billion Heart Attack
JFK may have had his own checkered medical history, but his predecessor’s health proved far more precarious for the country.
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because a hamburger and a medical error nearly felled the imposing five-star general who helped liberate Europe.
It was a crisp Saturday afternoon in September 1955. The U.S. economy was booming, there were no major crises in the world and the president of the United States, enjoying an approval rating of 79 percent, was on vacation. Then, on the eighth hole of the Cherry Hills Country Club golf course, just outside Denver, Dwight D. Eisenhower, 64, started complaining of indigestion, which he attributed to the hamburger with Bermuda onions he had wolfed down between his morning and afternoon games.
Just 24 hours later, the American people were informed that their war-hero president was in an oxygen tent at Fitzsimons Army Hospital being treated by one of the best cardiologists in the country. And another 24 hours later, on Sept. 26, the bull market that had seen stocks triple on Wall Street in the previous seven years went into a tailspin, the Dow Jones plummeting over 6 percent and losing $14 billion in value by the end of what would prove to be the worst single day for markets since the start of World War II. Eisenhower’s heart attack, however, was just one in a series of major illnesses the seemingly invincible leader would experience during his presidency. And you thought JFK had medical problems.
It would be almost 12 hours before the president was taken to the hospital.
The man who would become Supreme Allied Commander in Europe started smoking when he was a cadet at West Point. By age 59, he had reached a four-pack-a-day habit, when his doctors advised him to cut back. As president, Eisenhower’s primary physical activity was playing golf, something he had plenty of time for on the numerous vacations he enjoyed while in office. “[T]here are so few people who have any real conception of the need and difficulty of keeping ‘fit’ in this position,” the folksy president with the dimpled grin once observed.
By that fateful Saturday in September, Eisenhower had been in Denver for more than five weeks, fishing in the Rocky Mountains and playing golf. The abundant fresh air, however, had not mellowed the president’s infamous temper, which his concerned doctors had watched worsen over his first term in office. On the day of his cardiac event, as Clarence G. Lasby details in Eisenhower’s Heart Attack, the cantankerous commander in chief’s golf game had been interrupted repeatedly by phone calls from Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. Called back to the clubhouse for yet another call from Dulles, the president had become so angry that, as one observer put it, “the veins stood out on his forehead like whipcords.”
That night, after experiencing indigestion, Eisenhower awoke to chest pains around 2 a.m. His personal physician, Maj. Gen. Howard Snyder, was called to the scene and administered an injection of morphine. Amazingly, it would be almost 12 hours before the president was taken to the hospital. At 8 o’clock the following morning, the White House announced that Eisenhower had suffered “digestive upset” in the night; four hours later, it was again claimed that the president’s “indigestion” was not serious.
But as Eisenhower’s chest pains persisted into the afternoon, an electrocardiograph was brought in and recorded an acute myocardial infarction, and at around 2 p.m. the president was finally rushed to the hospital. From his research into the delay, Lasby concludes that “Snyder mistook a coronary thrombosis for a gastrointestinal problem, waited for 10 hours before he recognized his mistake and called for help, and conducted an unremitting cover-up of his error for the rest of his life.”
Things improved from there, and once Eisenhower stabilized in the oxygen tent, he and his advisers decided to head off any panic by being as forthcoming as possible (though they were not aware of Snyder’s potential error). Until Eisenhower left the hospital six weeks later, the American public was kept up to date with the minute details of the president’s progress, up to and including his bowel movements.
Over the next several months, both the market and Eisenhower rebounded. In February 1956, Eisenhower announced that he would run for re-election; despite undergoing surgery in June for an inflammation of the small intestine, he overwhelmingly defeated Adlai Stevenson in one of the most lopsided elections in presidential history. One year after getting re-elected, however, Eisenhower was back in the hospital: He was having trouble completing his sentences, and a team of specialists confirmed that the president had suffered a mild stroke.
Eisenhower would recover again, and even become something of a health and exercise freak in his second term, albeit the stubborn variety who refused to take orders and continued to smoke and indulge in food not on the restrictive diet prescribed for his heart and intestinal problems. It’s believed that after his first heart attack in 1955, Eisenhower suffered at least seven myocardial infarctions and 14 cardiac arrests before he died in 1969 at age 78.
William Sterrett, Eisenhower’s doctor after he retired to a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, told The New York Times how he once found his famous patient in severe abdominal pain and asked what he had eaten for dinner. “Pig knuckles and sauerkraut,” Ike answered. “Why?” the doctor queried. “’Cause I like it, darn it!’’ the five-star general replied.