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February 1956. Prior to President Eisenhower’s August 1955 heart attack, America was aware of, but not too concerned about what was going on its ribcage. But after that near-fatality and almost sudden loss of a President, attention now became focused on what America was doing to prevent that sort of thing from happening more often.
A little background: Eisenhower was the first president to release information about his health and medical records while in office, but people around him deliberately misled the public about his health. On September 24, 1955, while vacationing in Colorado, he had a serious heart attack. Dr. Howard Snyder, his personal physician, misdiagnosed the symptoms as indigestion, and failed to call in the help that was urgently needed. Snyder later falsified his own records to cover his blunder and to protect Eisenhower’s need to portray he was healthy enough to do his job.
The heart attack required six weeks’ hospitalization, during which time Nixon, Dulles, and Sherman Adams assumed administrative duties and provided communication with the President. He was treated by Dr. Paul Dudley White, a cardiologist with a national reputation, who regularly informed the press of the President’s progress. Instead of eliminating him as a candidate for a second term as President, his physician recommended a second term as essential to his recovery.
As a consequence of his heart attack, Eisenhower developed a left ventricular aneurysm, which was in turn the cause of a mild stroke on November 25, 1957. This incident occurred during a cabinet meeting when Eisenhower suddenly found himself unable to speak or move his right hand. The stroke had caused aphasia. The president also suffered from Crohn’s disease, chronic inflammatory condition of the intestines which necessitated surgery for a bowel obstruction on June 9, 1956. To treat the intestinal block, surgeons bypassed about ten inches of his small intestine. His scheduled meeting with Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru was postponed so he could recover at his farm. He was still recovering from this operation during the Suez Crisis. Eisenhower’s health issues forced him to give up smoking and make some changes to his dietary habits, but he still indulged in alcohol. During a visit to England he complained of dizziness and had to have his blood pressure checked on August 29, 1959; however, before dinner at Chequers on the next day his doctor General Howard Snyder recalled Eisenhower “drank several gin-and-tonics, and one or two gins on the rocks … three or four wines with the dinner”.
The upshot of this “new transparency” from The White House, encouraged Americans to take a more serious look at their health and to get routine checkups and seek medical treatments. This wasn’t something we did out of habit – considering the Polio Vaccine had only been introduced a year earlier, matters of health and prevention were not high on the list of “must-do” things.
This episode of American Forum, from February 12, 1956 talks about Heart health, on the occasion that President Eisenhower was getting his test results back later on in the week.
To get a better idea of where America was, health-wise, here is that episode of American Forum from February 12, 1956.