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Health and Medical History of President

Gerald Ford

President #38: 1974-1977
Lived 1913-2006 2016 1776
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1776-1783
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1812-1815
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1846-1848
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1898-1899
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1917-1918
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1941-1945
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1950-1953
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1990-1991
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2001-Now

One Christmas, "the president and his family were vacationing in Vail, Colorado. They were eating dinner in their rented chalet and one of their dogs messed on the floor. A White House steward started to clean up, but Ford took the rag away and did the job himself, [saying] `No man should have to clean up after another man's dog.'" 1a

Maladies & Conditions  · unnecessary appendectomy · stutter · sold his blood · weak knees · shoulder dislocation · pipe smoker · skimped on sleep · "clumsy" · swine flu immunization · voice strain · election-loss blues · facial aging · weight · his routine · knee replacements · tore ankle ligament · food sensitivities · tongue abscess · stroke · dizziness in heat · "horrible cold" · pneumonia · shortness of breath · pacemaker, coronary angioplasty · hospitalization for tests · undisclosed cause

Odds & Ends · Doctors · Resources · Cited Sources

Maladies and Conditions
 This style...  ... means the event occurred while President.

unnecessary appendectomy
At age 5 Ford developed severe abdominal pain. He was rushed to the hospital, where appendicitis was diagnosed. At operation, his appendix was discovered to be normal 2a. Comment: Ford's parents were furious. It should be remembered, however, that as late as the 1980s, surgeons understood that 10% of their operations for appendicitis should discover a normal appendix: anything less meant that diseased appendices were going un-operated. Imaging methods developed since then have changed the rules. Interestingly, Ford was to be midiagnosed again, 70 years later (see below).

stutter
Ford stuttered until about the age of ten 2b. There have been speculations that his ambidexterity or emotional issues were the cause 2b.

sold his blood
Ford was in college during the depths of the Depression, and was desperate for money. Every two months, he sold his blood for $25 3a. Comment: Did he do this while excelling at football? That would be very impressive.

weak knees
"Weak knees" as a result of playing football 2c. Circa 1980, he wore braces on his knees to play tennis 3b. Successful left knee replacement in 1990. By August 1991 he walked with a pronounced limp, and reported that his cartilage was "totally gone." The right knee would be replaced later that year 3c. After his knee replacements, he still played tennis and golf regularly 3d.

shoulder dislocation
Dislocated a shoulder on a ski vacation in Michigan, while courting Betty. It evidently bothered him to some degree afterwards, because he warned a friend who did the same thing: "You're going to have trouble with it the rest of your life" 3e.

pipe smoker
Ford smoked a pipe, about eight bowls a day 2d. However, by 2000: "Neither of us smoke anymore" ("us" being his wife and he) 3f.

skimped on sleep
Ford had an "always impressive" energy level 3g, but liked to sleep in his own bed. So, as Vice President his travel was generally scheduled as "marathon" one-day trips that got him home "well past midnight." After five hours of sleep, he would repeat the process. "He loved red-eye flights like no politician I've ever covered" 3h. Even as President, Ford would walk his dog in the middle of the night if she needed it 3i.

"clumsy"
His reputation as a clumsy person is ironic, given that he is the most athletic president of the 20th century. A former All-Star college football player (who turned down offers to play professionally 2c), he was in good physical shape when he entered the White House at age 62. As President, he continued to ski, swim, and play golf and tennis, and was good at all of them 4a.

Nevertheless, here is the litany:

  • While relaxing at an informal gathering, put his feet up on a table, and planted one foot in the middle of a two-pound wheel of Brie cheese (ca. Dec. 1974) 3j.
  • Fell while walking down air stairs at a Spanish airport on May 3, 1975 2d.
  • Dr. Zebra can remember at least one other slip -- Hit a spectator with a golf ball.
  • As Vice President, unexpected turbulence plunged his plane downwards, spilling a gin and tonic on his head 3k. Comment: Yes, it's not really clumsiness, but it had to go somewhere. :-)

swine flu immunization
In 1976 experts warned that an emerging strain of influenza, known as the "swine flu," had the potential to cause illness on a massive scale that winter. A large public immunization campaign was launched, and a photo was released showing President Ford being immunized by his physician, Dr. William Lukash 5. Interestingly, the photo shows Dr. Lukash not wearing gloves as he administers the shot, unlike standard practice today MORE.

voice strain
The morning after the 1976 election, had lost his voice and was barely able to rasp out words 3l.

election-loss blues
Was not himself after losing the 1976 election. He got agitated when the New York Times asked to interview him for his obituary. His gregariousness changed to reclusiveness. "He's just unbelievably disgusted with himself for losing" according to a friend 3m. The blues lifted after "several weeks" 3k.

facial aging
DeFrank thinks two and a half years as President aged Ford's facial appearance by ten years 3n. By summer 1977, however, a friend enviously griped: "Look at him. He's sixty-four going on fifty, the bastard" 3o.

Ford would awaken at 5:30 am as President 3b. Comment: Perhaps lack of sleep has something to do with the appearance of aging.


weight
Weighed 197 pounds in July 1977, two pounds more than his best White House weight 3p.

his routine
His routine as ex-President, circa 1978: Wake up at 6:30 am (without an alarm clock). Twenty minutes of sit-ups and leg lifts aimed at strengthening his football-injured knees. Breakfast was half a honey-dew melon, orange juice, bran flakes with bananas, and English muffin or two. Four days a week he would play golf, and on the other days play doubles tennis (with knee braces). While doing paperwork later in the day (a minimum of eight hours a day, six days a week), he would "usually" nurse a double martini 3q.

However, one part of his routine did not last. In 2000, he said: "I haven't had a drink in 22 years, she [Betty] hasn't had one in 23 years ... she stopped drinking in 1978. I kept drinking for a year; then I got tired of drinking alone, so we drink [chuckle] tonic and lime at night" 3f.


knee replacements
Bilateral knee replacements in 1990-1991, as above 3c.

tore ankle ligament
Circa January 1999. Ford did not know how it happened 3r.

food sensitivities
January 1999: Betty says Ford once "could eat anything. Now he can't" 3s.

tongue abscess
During the 2000 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia, Ford appeared "sluggish and sick" on television during a tribute to him. A few hours later, shortly after midnight on Wednesday, August 2, Ford presented to the emergency room at Hahnemann University Hospital, complaining of facial pain. The physician diagnosis was "a sinus attack." Ford stayed only a half-hour, and declined the recommendation to have a CT scan 6.

Upon awakening on Wednesday morning, Ford had new symptoms and returned to the hospital. He apparently had left arm weakness, balance difficulties, and slurred speech 6. A stroke was diagnosed and he was treated with "blood thinners" 6.

The slurred speech, however, was ascribed to a swollen, painful tongue, which proved to be abscessed with actinomycosis. (This is an exceedingly rare cause of a tongue abscess.) The abscess was drained under general anesthesia 7. (It is not clear when the anticoagulants were started, in relation to the abscess drainage.)

Later, a Ford spokesman declared that Ford had developed tongue pain while in Colorado, before Ford departing for the convention 7.

By August 5 Ford was "completely recovered from the stroke" (there were also questions about a possible other strokes) 7. He left the hospital on August 9, still taking antibiotics and blood thinners 8.

The Hahnemann University Hospital was obviously embarassed by missing the diagnosis on the first night, but refused to admit anything. A hospital spokesman said "We do not believe there was any misdiagnosis there." He then shamelessly shifted the blame to the patient, saying "The activities that evening were totally controlled by the President" 6.
Comment: The question is: how could the abscess have been missed on physical examination the first night, especially when Ford had noted tongue pain days earlier? How did the physician(s) arrive at the mistaken diagnosis of a sinus problem? A CT scan is usually not required to discover a tongue abscess.

Comment: It is possible that missing the tongue abscess the first night played a role in causing the stroke, as there is a tight relationship between inflammation and acute vascular events. In simple terms, inflammation (the classic response to an infection) makes the blood more likely to clot (the actual event triggering a stroke). Older physicians, for example, will recall the classic association between pneumonia and acute myocardial infarction. In Ford's case, the missed diagnosis allowed the infection, hence the inflammation, to progress for the extra few hours leading to the stroke.


stroke
August 2000. See discussion above.

dizziness in heat
In 2003 Ford, then 89, was golfing in 96-degree heat in California's Coachella Valley. He became dizzy and was taken to Eisenhower Medical Center for examination 9.

"horrible cold"
Hospitalized mid-December 2005 10.

pneumonia
Hospitalized because of pneumonia on January 14, 2006 for 12 days. He was not afterwards seen in public until April 23. Pictures of Ford on that day show him standing, using a cane. 11

shortness of breath
In July 2006, was hospitalized for two days at the Vail Valley Medical Center (Colorado) because of shortness of breath 11.

pacemaker, coronary angioplasty
In separate procedures during the same hospitalization at the Mayo Clinic (Rochester) in late August 2006, Ford had implantation of a permanent cardiac pacemaker and underwent a two-vessel coronary angioplasty (with stent placement) 12.

hospitalization for tests
In October 2006 was admitted for "medical tests" for five days to Eisenhower Medical Center 13.

undisclosed cause
Ford died on December 26, 2006 at age 93. He lived longer than any President in history. The cause of death has not been disclosed. A clergyman reported that Ford was alert when he attended a religious service on Dec. 16, but was too weak to stand 14. Comment: Ford died four months after his angioplasties and stents (see above), a typical time at which re-stenosis can occur. However, his passing did not appear to be abrupt, which lessens (but does not eliminate) the possibility of coronary artery disease as the cause.
Odds and Ends
Doctors
During Presidency After Presidency
Resources
 
Ford
16 reviews
Ampres Series
Brinkley
43 reviews
 
DeFrank
85 reviews
Kansas Series
Greene
7 reviews
Cited Sources
  1. Walsh, Kenneth T. Air Force One: A History of Presidents and Their Planes. New York: Hyperion, 2003.
        
    a  p.117; How can anyone not admire a guy like this?
  2. Bumgarner, John R. The Health of the Presidents: The 41 United States Presidents Through 1993 from a Physician's Point of View. Jefferson, NC: MacFarland & Company, 1994.
        
    a  p.272  b  pp.272-273  c  p.273  d  p.274  e  pp.272-273 citing A Time to Heal, page 45  f  pp.275-276

    Comment: Devotes one chapter to each President, through Clinton. Written for the layperson, well-referenced, with areas of speculation clearly identified, Dr. Zebra depends heavily on this book. Dr. Bumgarner survived the Bataan Death March and has written an unforgettable book casting a physician's eye on that experience.

  3. DeFrank, Thomas M. Write It When I'm Gone: Remarkable Off-the-Record Conversations with Gerald R. Ford. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2007.
        
    a  pp.67, 173  b  p.76  c  pp.88-89  d  p.208  e  p.61  f  p.185  g  p.75  h  p.22  i  p.44  j  p.48  k  p.60  l  p.57  m  p.59, citing a Newsweek story of late November 1974  n  p.62  o  p.74  p  p.69  q  pp.76-77  r  p.128  s  p.131  t  p.173  u  pp.13, 69
  4. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
        
    a  p.334
  5. Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic. NY: Touchstone, 2001.
        
  6. Neal, Pat (plus Associated Press). Ford's condition improves, but swollen tongue stumps doctors. cnn.com. 3 August 2000, 8:19 pm EDT.
  7. Neal, Pat (plus Associated Press). Ford doing well after operation on tongue. cnn.com. 5 August 2000, 6:13 pm EDT.
  8. King, Larry. Larry King Live. cnn.com. 9 August 2000, 9:00 pm EDT.
  9. Nguyen, Daisy. Day After Fainting, Elder Bush on Stage. Washingtonpost.com / Associated Press. March 13, 2007; 1:35 am.
        

    Comment: Ford's episode is mentioned at the end, as an aside.

  10. Associated Press. Former President Ford Remains in Hospital. Washingtonpost.com. January 21, 2006; 7:37 pm.
  11. Associated Press. Ex-President Ford Released From Hospital. Washingtonpost.com. July 26, 2006; 3:16 pm.
        

    Comment: Viewed 11 March 2007 at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/07/26/AR2006072600959.html

  12. Associated Press. Gerald Ford Has Angioplasty. cbsnews.com. Aug. 25, 2006.
        

    Comment: Viewed 11 March 2007 at: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2006/08/25/politics/main1935608.shtml

  13. Naughton, James M.; Clymer, Adam. Gerald Ford, 38th President, dies at 93. New York Times. December 27, 2006.
        

    Comment: Viewed online - unclear if this story appeared in print edition.

  14. Hoffman, Allison. Pastor: family gathered near dying Ford. Associated Press. 28 Dec. 2006; 5:29 pm.
        

    Comment: Viewed 11 March 2007 at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/12/28/AR2006122800964.html

  15. Drury, Robert; Clavin, Tom. Halsey's Typhoon: The True Story of a Fighting Admiral, an Epic Storm, and an Untold Rescue. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2006.
        
Other Sources
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