Dwight Eisenhower: Deciding to Operate

deciding to operate
Without surgery, Eisenhower's 1956 bowel obstruction could easily have killed him (see above). Even so, the decision to operate was contentious. Eisenhower had had a serious heart attack just nine months earlier, and this made surgery risky. As you might expect, it is difficult to decide to operate on the President of the United States when he might not survive the operation. In Eisenhower's case, it took some dramatics from his personal physician to convince the consulting surgeons that they needed to operate. SEE BELOW 1

This episode illustrates one of the cardinal perils in delivering medical care to the President.

Eli Ginzberg, PhD, of Columbia University recently published the following account of the decision to operate on Eisenhower: 1
President Eisenhower had a serious heart attack during the summer of 1955 while vacationing in Colorado. I first realized the seriousness of the president's condition when I started to receive detailed daily letters from his personal physician and friend, » Major General Howard Snyder, MD, a close friend of mine since World War II and who, I concluded, was sending me these daily accounts as insurance in the event that the president failed to recover. However, Eisenhower recovered and returned to the White House, only to experience a severe attack of ileitis some months later, for which General Snyder had him transported by ambulance early one morning to Walter Reed Hospital. Tests were performed while urgent calls were made to Dr. I. V. Ravdin, MDnotitle, at the University of Pennsylvania, who had served under General Eisenhower in Europe and Dr. Dudley White, MDnotitle, of Harvard University, the president's cardiologist, to come as quickly as possible to Walter Reed Hospital where the president was a patient in need of urgent diagnosis and treatment.

As General Snyder told the story, the out-of-town experts arrived shortly before noon and spent the next 12 hours in constant consultations and some testing, but took no definitive action because no one wanted to operate on the president, who might not survive. Finally, shortly after midnight, Snyder told the consultant group that although he had not performed an operation during the last 2 decades, he would wheel the president in to surgery and operate on him if they failed to act within 15 minutes. That did the trick. The operation for ileitis went smoothly.

Cited Sources
  1. Ginzberg, E. Ten encounters with the US health sector, 1930-1999. JAMA. 1999;282:1665-1668. Pubmed: 10553794.

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