Health and Medical History of President

George Bush

President #41
Lived: 1924-Date Served: 1989-1993

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

Maladies and Conditions

staph infection
As a high school senior Bush almost died from a staphylococcal infection in his right arm. He spent weeks recovering at Massachusetts General Hospital. Antibiotics, in the form of sulfa drugs, were available in that era, but, curiously, they were not used 3a.

forehead gash
Bush's plane was downed twice during his service as a Naval Aviator in World War II. On the second occasion, he struck his head on the tail of the airplane as a result of being ejected from the plane, sustaining a deep gash in his forehead. Effects from smoke in the cockpit and swallowing seawater after landing in the Pacific Ocean nauseated him. He was rescued by an American submarine some hours later 3b.

bleeding ulcers
Bush had bleeding ulcers in the 1950s-1960s timeframe, the last apparently in 1960. He also suffered from heartburn about this time, which he treated with Pepto-Bismol 3c.

fitness enthusiast
Bush came from athletic parents and has participated in athletics and fitness activities most of his life. He began playing tennis at age 5 and was on the baseball team in college. He began regular jogging at age 51, while head of the CIA. In 1991 he was quoted as saying: "I used to do four miles in about eight minutes and fifty seconds per mile, but age has been catching up with me." 3d.

height
Bush is 6 feet 2 inches tall 9.

blood type O-positive
Both George and Barbara Bush are O-positive 1a.

eye blinking
Eye blinking is known to increase during times of stress or mental activity. Psychologist Joseph Tecce of Boston College has studied blink rates and the Presidency. During the 1988 Presidential debates against Michael Dukakis, Bush blinked an average of 67 times per minute, and Dukakis 75. Tough questions raised the rates: Bush blinked 89/min when asked about abortion, and Dukakis 92/min when asked about taxes. Easier questions dropped the rate: Dukakis blinked 53/min when he joked about "being likable" and Bush 44/min when praising Vice Presidential candidate J. Danforth Quayle 8.

physical exams
Bush underwent four complete physical examinations during his four years in office, plus at least one less formal examination. The press releases are available MORE. The few remarkable findings from the physicals are discussed elsewhere on this page.

arthritis
"Mild degenerative arthritis [joint unspecified] which has been present for several years" was noted on the 1989 physical examination. The degree of his symptoms are unclear 13a.

mucoid cyst
A one centimeter mucoid cyst on the "third digit [sic] on the middle finger" of Bush's right hand was surgically removed under local anesthesia at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Oct. 6, 1989 MORE 13b. (The "third digit" reference perhaps means third phalanx.)

A "sebaceous cyst" on the third finger of his right hand had been drained at the time of his physical five months earlier. The cyst, undoubtedly the same as the one removed, had been present for many years 13a.


mild glaucoma
"An early glaucoma of [the] left eye" was noted during Bush's physical in April 1990. He was started on Betagan eye drops, 1 drop every 12 hours 13c. After re-examination two weeks later by specialists from Johns Hopkins and the Mayo Clinic, it was decided to stop the eye drops and to follow him closely MORE 13d.

eye sty
A sty in Bush's right eye was treated with antibiotics and soaks in 1990 13c.

dyed hair
Heimel claims that Bush had one or more patches of orange hair at one or more times, and interprets this as evidence that he was dying his hair 7.

atrial fib
While jogging at Camp David on a Saturday afternoon (May 4, 1991), Bush developed shortness of breath, chest tightness, and a general feeling of fatigue. A White House physician discovered Bush had a rapid irregular heartbeat, ultimately diagnosed as atrial fibrillation due to hyperthyroidism (see below). 11 MORE

Bush was transferred to Bethesda Naval Hospital by helicopter. His ventricular rate was 150/min 3e. Cardiologist Dr. Allen M. Ross prescribed digitalis, procainamide, and Coumadin 11. (Note: Digitalis slows the heart, procainamide can change the rhythm pattern from atrial fibrillation back to normal, and Coumadin prevents blood clots, one of the main complications of atrial fibrillation.) Abrams writes:

According to the doctors' plan, if the drugs failed to affect the arrhythmia -- as initially they did -- an electrical shock would be administered the following day, a common way of returning a patient's rhythm to normal. When it was announced that Dan Quayle would be acting president under the Twenty-fifth Amendment provisions while Bush was under anesthesia for the cardioversion -- if it was required -- a different kind of shock reverberated across the nation. The prospect of Quayle as president brought home sharply the electorate's lack of confidence in his ability to lead. 1b
The drugs were effective. By 10:25 pm on May 5, Bush's heart rhythm was normal. About 5 am the following morning, however, atrial fibrillation recurred. It was decided (by whom?) to continue the drugs rather than use electrical cardioversion. Bush returned to the White House later that day. 1b. Comment: It would be useful to have information on how long Bush used these medications. Both digitalis and procainamide can affect higher mental function.

Graves disease
Graves disease was diagnosed immediately after the occurrence of atrial fibrillation. Bush had been feeling increasingly tired over the preceding two weeks, had lost nine pounds in two months, and had seen his handwriting deteriorate. Physical examination disclosed a fine tremor of his hands and slight enlargement of his thyroid gland (goiter). Bush was hyperthyroid. 11 MORE

"President Bush and the team of physicians caring for him agreed that his hyperthyroidism should be treated in the safest, fastest, most definitive, and permanent way possible. Therefore, he took an oral dose of radioactive iodine a few days after being admitted to the hospital" 11. Two days later Bush began a ten day course of potassium iodide (SSKI), four drops three times a day, to prevent a rare complication of radio-iodine therapy called "thyroid storm" (extreme hyperthyroidism).

The treatment worked. "Within a few months" Bush's thyroid was no longer over-producing thyroid hormone. In fact, it was now producing too little (a common occurence after radiation treatment). Thus, Bush began taking, for the rest of his life, a pill containing synthetic thyroid hormone known as "Synthroid" 11.

Comment: For a few days, radio-iodine treatment generally makes the patient radioactive to a degree that can jeopardize others who come too close. For this reason, such treatments are generally given in the hospital. Lower levels of radiation persist longer, however. As far back as 1986 the White House contained radiation detectors 12. It would be interesting to know whether the detectors had to be turned off or re-calibrated after Bush had his radiation treatment. It would also be interesting to know how physical access to the President was controlled while he was radioactive.


depression?
The listless second half of the Bush presidency, as well as his uninspired campaign for re-election in 1992, raises the question of whether he suffered depressive or other psychological sequelae of his thyroid disease. There is no objective evidence for this yet -- it is pure, weak speculation.

Watching a few semi-candid clips of Bush from October 1992 10 only strengthens an impression of mental lassitude MORE. Asked by Larry King what disease he (Bush) had just had, Bush replied "Crohn's? No, not Crohn's. Uh, just thyroid." An apathetic- and listless-appearing Bush also seemed to think that Halcion (a sleeping pill he had taken) was a decongestant. Comment: Either Bush was amazingly ignorant of his medical issues, or he was not firing on all cylinders.


conjugal Graves
Bush's wife, Barabara, had earlier been diagnosed with Graves disease. The odds of two people (not related by blood) developing Graves disease within a two years of each other are long (Doctor Zebra has seen a one-in-three-million number 11, but thinks this answers the wrong question.)

The Bush dog, Millie, came down with Graves disease, too 5, although there are reports Millie had a different auto-immune disease: lupus 11.

Because of the remarkable coincidence of three cases of auto-immune disease in one household, the Secret Service tested the water in the White House, at Camp David, at the Vice President's residence, and at Walker's Point (Bush's home in Maine) for lithium and iodine, two substances "known to cause thyroid problems" 13e. MORE.


Japan puke
In January 1992, while at a formal dinner in Japan, Bush became ill. He vomited on the Prime Minister of Japan, then fainted. Earlier in the evening, Bush had told his physician he was feeling unwell 3f. Bush disregarded Dr. Burton Lee's advice to skip the dinner 6 MORE.

It proved to be nothing more than "the flu," but coming on the heels of Bush's diagnoses of atrial fibrillation and Graves disease in the preceding 12 months, there was concern over his physical health MORE.

Comment: During the episode Bush had the appearance of a man suffering an inferior-wall myocardial infarction. An electrocardiogram was, however, normal. It's not clear what the Japanese Prime Minister thought of all this. One is left to ponder the immortal line from the immortal movie Animal House: "Flounder, you didn't just throw up in front of Dean Wormer, you threw up on Dean Wormer!"

Interestingly, Bush's son George W. Bush also suffered a syncopal episode while President.


stops Halcion
On Feb. 5, 1992 the White House announced that Bush would no longer take Halcion, a sleeping pill that had been banned in Great Britain and was ultimately withdrawn from the American market. There had been questions whether Halcion was responsible for the President's "tangled syntax" or his illness in Japan 3g.

Listening to him discuss Halcion with Larry King, it seems that Bush was a fan of the medicine MORE.


stress
Bumgarner cites reports that Bush's physicians recommended a more relaxing schedule for the President after his March 26, 1992 physical, due to the great deal of stress Bush had been under 3g.

actinic keratoses
Four "very minute keratoses on the President's face" were removed with liquid nitrogen on March 26, 1992 -- not the first time Bush had had this procedure. No evidence of skin cancer was found MORE 13f.

actinic keratoses
Bush was treated for sun-induced pre-cancerous lesions on his face in August 2002 2. Bush's son, George W. Bush, had a similar procedure 8 months earlier. Comment: The photograph accompanying the reference suggests cryotherapy (liquid nitrogen) was used.
Odds & Ends
Resources
 
Cramer
84 reviews
 
Bush
20 reviews
Naftali
14 reviews
 
Bush
2 reviews
Greene
1 review
Cited Resources
  1. Abrams, Herbert L. "The President Has Been Shot": Confusion, Disability, and the 25th Amendment in the Aftermath of the Attempted Assassination of Ronald Reagan. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1992.0393030423 Libraries 91-15846. app. 59-60 bp. 261
  2. Associated Press. [no title]. Yahoo! News [on-line]. 3 August 2002, 1:40 pm ET.
  3. 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, 1994.0899509568 Libraries 93-42000. ap. 288 bp. 289 cp. 290 dpp. 289-291 ep. 292 fp. 294 gp. 295
    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.
  4. Cramer, Richard Ben. What It Takes: The Way to the White House. New York: Random House, 1992.0679746498 Libraries 91-52676. ap. 414
    Comment: This book -- an immersive biography of six contenders for the 1988 Presidential election -- is simply tremendous. One thousand pages, and you really don't want it to end. Makes it clear that success or failure in running for President ultimately rests on the personality of the candidate. The victor, Bush, was at all times willing to do "what it takes" to win the Presidency. There is no better book to discover what makes people at this level tick.
  5. Ebner SA, Badonnel MC, Altman LK, Braverman LE. Conjugal Graves disease. Ann Intern Med. 1992 Mar 15;116(6):479-81. Pubmed 1739238.
  6. Hedger B. White coats in the White House: Former presidential physicians reflect on their service. AMedNews. Mar. 23, 2009.
  7. Heimel, Cynthia. Combover Congress: how can we trust our leaders to manage impeachment when they can't even manage their hair?. Salon.com. Feb. 3, 1999.
    Comment: Caveat emptor: no written source for these statements is known to Dr. Zebra. Available on the web at: http://www.salon.com/news/1999/02/03newsb.html
  8. Jaret, Peter. Blinking and thinking. In Health. July/August 1990; 4(4): 36-37.
  9. Mathews J. The shrinking field. Washington Post. August 3, 1999. Page C1.
  10. Springer, Brian. Spin. [Movie, 1995]. Accessed 6 July 2006.
    Comment: This movie is largely composed of clips from 1992 television satellite feeds. These feeds are usually not broadcast in their entirety. For example, satellite feeds can include recordings made during commercial breaks or before a show starts. With the proper equipment, anyone can pick up satellite feeds (although they may be encrypted). 57 minutes 26 seconds. Movie accessed at: http://www.brasscheck.com/videos/spin.html
  11. The Thyroid Society. Graves' disease: the heart of the matter. [On line]. Accessed 16 December 2002.
  12. Toltzis RJ, Morton DJ, Gerson MC. Problems on Pennsylvania Avenue. N Engl J Med. 1986 Sep 25;315(13):836-7. Pubmed 3748102.
  13. White House Press Release. [various topics]. George H.W. Bush Public Papers. (Kept in the Bush Presidential Library, College Station, TX). aStatement by Press Secretary Fitzwater on the Results of the President's Physical Examination, May 10, 1989 bStatement by Press Secretary Fitzwater on the President's Hand Surgery, October 6, 1989 cStatement by Press Secretary Fitzwater on the President's Physical Examination, April 12, 1990 dStatement by Press Secretary Fitzwater on the President's Eye Examination, April 25, 1990 eStatement by Press Secretary Fitzwater on the President's Health, May 28, 1991 fStatements by Press Secretary Fitzwater on the President's Physical Examination, March 26, 1992
    Comment: Downloaded 26-27 November 2003 from: http://bushlibrary.tamu.edu/papers/
Other Resources
Alternate index terms: George Herbert Walker Bush
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