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Published On Dec 20, 2016

Clinical Research

The Heart of a President

When Eisenhower came clean about his heart attack, it allowed one physician to change the nation’s views on cardiac health.

On September 24, 1955, Paul Dudley White and his wife, Ina, were on their way to a dinner party near Boston when they heard shocking news on the car radio: President Dwight D. Eisenhower had suffered a heart attack. Within a few hours, the Surgeon General’s office tracked down White and summoned him to Eisenhower’s bedside. White—who had written a definitive book on heart disease, published hundreds of articles about the topic, and was a founder of both the American Heart Association and the National Heart Institute (now the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute)—was decidedly the man for the job.

When past presidents had suffered a serious illness, it was largely kept secret. Grover Cleveland’s oral cancer was treated covertly by six surgeons on a private yacht. Woodrow Wilson hid his stroke from the public, even though he was nearly incapacitated for more than a year. Yet when press secretary Jim Hagerty awoke the sedated Eisenhower to ask what the public should know about his condition, the president said, with a candor born of his Kansas roots, “Tell them everything,” and went back to sleep.

The next morning, White flew to Denver, where Eisenhower had suffered the attack, and examined his patient. Then at a press conference attended by 150 reporters, White—69 and slightly built, with rimless glasses and a trim gray moustache—stated in plainspoken terms that the president had suffered an “average” heart attack, was recovering well and was receiving excellent care. (His soft Boston accent rendered the word “heart” into hawt.)

Celebrity status awaited White when he returned to Boston, especially at Massachusetts General Hospital, where he had established the cardiac division in 1916. “He became a rock star,” recalls Roman DeSanctis, director emeritus of clinical cardiology at MGH, who counts White as his mentor. Besieged by reporters, White used his appearances on TV, radio and in print to dispute the widely held belief of the day that heart attacks were inevitably fatal or incapacitating, arguing that survivors often were able to resume normal lives.

White’s time in the national spotlight became a “seminal moment,” according to DeSanctis, with a profound impact on how doctors and the public view heart disease. White used his fame to launch a series of wildly popular lectures in gymnasiums and community halls across the United States in which he promoted another of his pioneering ideas—that engaging in regular exercise, maintaining a healthy diet, and controlling risk factors such as obesity and smoking can reduce the likelihood of coronary artery disease.

Yet in spite of his belief that life can go on after a heart attack, White was initially reluctant to endorse the 65-year-old Ike’s desire to seek a second term as president. White was worried that his conviction would be questioned if the most powerful man in the country suffered a second, possibly fatal, attack. But, accompanying the president on a brisk 30-minute walk around his farm in Gettysburg, Pa., helped change White’s mind. (Eisenhower won reelection, completed a second term, and died in 1969.)

For his care of the president, White received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964. Despite his many honors and distinctions, however, White—who died in 1973—is above all remembered for his kindness, humanity, and belief that a close relationship between physician and patient is essential for good medicine. According to Randall Zusman, director of the division of hypertension at MGH, “he was adamant that, if you just listen to the patients, they will tell you what’s wrong.”

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