Health and Medical History of President

Gerald Ford

President #38
Lived: 1913-2006 Served: 1974-1977

Timeline from 1776: ← 2013

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.'" 15a

Maladies and Conditions

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 5a. 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).

Ford stuttered until about the age of ten 5b. There have been speculations that his ambidexterity or emotional issues were the cause 5b.

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 6a. Comment: Did he do this while excelling at football? That would be very impressive.

weak knees
"Weak knees" as a result of playing football 5c. Circa 1980, he wore braces on his knees to play tennis 6b.

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" 6c.

pipe smoker
Ford smoked a pipe, about eight bowls a day 5d.

skimped on sleep
Ford had an "always impressive" energy level 6d, 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" 6e. Even as President, Ford would walk his dog in the middle of the night if she needed it 6f.

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 5c), 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) 6g.
  • Fell while walking down air stairs at a Spanish airport on May 3, 1975 5d.
  • 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 6h. 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 10. 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 6i.

    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 6j. The blues lifted after "several weeks" 6h.

    facial aging
    DeFrank thinks two and a half years as President aged Ford's facial appearance by ten years 6k. By summer 1977, however, a friend enviously griped: "Look at him. He's sixty-four going on fifty, the bastard" 6l.

    Ford would awaken at 5:30 am as President 6b. Comment: Perhaps lack of sleep has something to do with the appearance of aging.

    Weighed 197 pounds in July 1977, two pounds more than his best White House weight 6m.

    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 6n.

    knee replacements
    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 6o.

    tore ankle ligament
    Circa January 1999. Ford did not know how it happened 6p.

    food sensitivities
    January 1999: Betty says Ford once "could eat anything. Now he can't" 6q.

    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 13.

    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 13. A stroke was diagnosed and he was treated with "blood thinners" 13.

    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 12. (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 12.

    By August 5 Ford was "completely recovered from the stroke" (there were also questions about a possible other strokes) 12. He left the hospital on August 9, still taking antibiotics and blood thinners 9.

    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" 13.
    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.

    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 14.

    "horrible cold"
    Hospitalized mid-December 2005 2.

    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. 1

    shortness of breath
    In July 2006, was hospitalized for two days at the Vail Valley Medical Center (Colorado) because of shortness of breath 1.

    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) 3.

    hospitalization for tests
    In October 2006 was admitted for "medical tests" for five days to Eisenhower Medical Center 11.

    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 8. 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 & Ends
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    Cited Resources
    1. Associated Press. Ex-President Ford Released From Hospital. July 26, 2006; 3:16 pm.
    2. Associated Press. Former President Ford Remains in Hospital. January 21, 2006; 7:37 pm.
    3. Associated Press. Gerald Ford Has Angioplasty. Aug. 25, 2006.
    4. Boller, Paul F. Jr. Presidential Anecdotes. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.0195029151 Libraries 80-27092. ap. 334
    5. 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. 272 bpp. 272-273 cp. 273 dp. 274 epp. 272-273 citing A Time to Heal, page 45 fpp. 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.
    6. 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, 2007.0425223485 Libraries 2007032750. app. 67, 173 bp. 76 cp. 61 dp. 75 ep. 22 fp. 44 gp. 48 hp. 60 ip. 57 jp. 59, citing a Newsweek story of late November 1974 kp. 62 lp. 74 mp. 69 npp. 76-77 opp. 88-89 pp. 128 qp. 131 rp. 173 spp. 13, 69
    7. 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, 2006.0871139480 Libraries.
    8. Hoffman, Allison. Pastor: family gathered near dying Ford. Associated Press. 28 Dec. 2006; 5:29 pm.
    9. King, Larry. Larry King Live. 9 August 2000, 9:00 pm EDT.
    10. Kolata, Gina. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic. NY: Touchstone, 2001.0743203984 Libraries.
    11. 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.
    12. Neal, Pat (plus Associated Press). Ford doing well after operation on tongue. 5 August 2000, 6:13 pm EDT.
    13. Neal, Pat (plus Associated Press). Ford's condition improves, but swollen tongue stumps doctors. 3 August 2000, 8:19 pm EDT.
    14. Nguyen, Daisy. Day After Fainting, Elder Bush on Stage. / Associated Press. March 13, 2007; 1:35 am.
      Comment: Ford's episode is mentioned at the end, as an aside.
    15. Walsh, Kenneth T. Air Force One: A History of Presidents and Their Planes. New York: Hyperion, 2003.1401300049 Libraries 2002038751. ap. 117
    Other Resources
    Alternate index terms: Gerald Rudolph Ford, Jerry Ford, Leslie Lynch King
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