Dwight Eisenhower: Treating his Heart Attack

Eisenhower had a left anterior myocardial infarction in September 1955, while on vacation at his in-laws' house in Denver. He was transported by car to Fitzsimmons Veterans Hospital and placed in an oxygen tent. His EKG showed ventricular and supraventricular premature beats. Although he developed a friction rub, he was treated with heparin 1. Eisenhower broke with precedent and released detailed information about his illness to the public, but nevertheless, some of what the public learned was carefully choreographed MORE 1. Eisenhower's long term treatment included coumadin 35 mg/wk, a low fat diet, and maintenance of weight at 175 pounds SEE BELOW 1a.

Eisenhower ascribed the initial symptoms of his heart attack to onions he had eaten. This is not surprising: he loved onions and garlic, and ordered the White House cook to serve them in a small side dish 2a.

Compared to today, of course, much less was known about the role of fat and cholesterol in coronary artery disease in Eisenhower's time. It is hard to believe that people ate as they did in the 1950s and 1960s. (We will see this again in the discussion of Lyndon Johnson's heart disease.) For example, here's what Eisenhower ate on the day of his infarct 1b:
  • Breakfast: sausage, bacon, mush, hotcakes.
  • Lunch: hamburger with raw onion.
  • Dinner: roast lamb.
When Eisenhower experienced "indigestion" after lunch on the day of his infarction, he blamed the onion.

Of course, it was probably Eisenhower's 4-pack-a-day cigarette habit which did the most damage to his arteries. He quit cold-turkey in 1949 3a.

The pace of Eisenhower's recovery from his infarction is also interesting. Summarized in the table below 1, it seems slow by today's standards, but for the time was remarkably aggressive. In 1955, patients with a myocardial infarction were routinely kept in bed for 6 months afterwards, and Dr. Paul Dudley White was criticized by his contemporaries for mobilizing the President so quickly. In retrospect, Eisenhower's "rapid" recovery after his infarction changed the way infarct patients were treated thereafter [???ref.]. Today, patients with an uncomplicated myocardial infarction spend just a few days in the hospital.

Date (1955)Event
September 24Infarct. Bedrest prescribed.
October 11First allowed to see a cabinet member.
October 22Sitting up in a chair for a few hours each day, and holding daily conferences about his presidential duties.
November 7Walking and starting to climb stairs.
November 11Returned to Washington, the trip delayed a month so that Eisenhower would not be seen being wheeled to the airplane and being lifted on board. After landing in Washington, goes to his farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
December 26Eisenhower doubts whether he should run for a second term as president with that "sword of Damocles" over his head. He suggests that Vice President Nixon should run instead.
Date (1956)Event
January 13Famous secret meeting with close advisors about his future. They recommend strongly that he should run again.
February 14Medical team reports there are no signs of cardiac enlargment. Harvard cardiologist Paul Dudley White, a member of the team, tells the press there was nothing to indicate that President Eisenhower could not carry on "his present active life satisfactorily for another five to ten years." Privately, White, a Republican, urged the President not to run.
February 28Eisenhower announces he is running for a second term in 1956.
Cited Sources
  1. Kucharski, A. Medical management of political patients: the case of Dwight D. Eisenhower. Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. 1978;22:115-126. Pubmed: 104273.
    a  p.123  b  p.116
  2. Parks, Lillian Rogers. My Thirty Years Backstairs at the White House. New York: Fleet Publishing, 1961.
    a  p.325

    Comment: This book stayed on the New York Times best-seller list for 26 weeks, prompting Jacqueline Kennedy to require all staff at the White House to sign a pledge agreeing not to write about their experiences (NY Times, page B8, Nov. 12, 1997). Parks's mother, a maid at the White House from 1909-1939, had actually been encouraged by Eleanor Roosevelt to write and publish a memoir (p260).

  3. Ambrose, Stephen E. Eisenhower: Volume One: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elect: 1890-1952. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
    a  p.488

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