Thursday, January 12, 2017

When Ike had his heart attack in 1955, coronary care was still in the dark ages

Building 500 on a January afternoon.

Coronary Q & A

After a short visit to the eighth floor of Building 500 on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus in Aurora

Q: If you had a heart attack in 1955, what was the likely outcome?

A: Death.

Q: You're kidding, right? I said 1955, not 1855, or 1755.

A: I kid you not. The most common nickname for a garden-variety heart attack in 1955 was "the widow maker."

Q: "Widowmaker" is what my Syrian refugee cardiologist called the heart attack caused by a total blockage of the Lateral Anterior Descending Artery or L.A.D. The kind of heart attack I had to welcome in the new year of 2013.

A: Times change. So does the language.

Q: In 1955, what was the most common prescription for the usual heart attack symptoms such as chest pain, numbness in the left arm, shortness of breath, chronic gastrointestinal problems?

A: R & R. Some time on the beach. A few rounds of golf. A relaxing day fishing by a bucolic Colorado trout stream. That was for men. Women? They didn't have heart heart attacks in 1955. It was probably hysteria. Or penis envy. Freud was in vogue.

Q: Forget Freud. Didn't doctors use electrocardiograms in 1955?

A: Not often. In 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower complained of chronic gastrointestinal pain. His doctor, U.S. Army Major General Howard McCrum Snyder, conducted a month-long physical of Ike without once doing an EKG. He told Ike to relax by going on a vacation and play some golf.

Q: What did Ike do?

A: He flew off to Colorado and played some golf.

Q: Why Colorado?

A: Ike's wife, Mamie Doud, was from Denver. She and Ike usually stayed at the Doud family home in what is now the Seventh Avenue Historic District. He had a heart attack on Sept. 23 after playing 27 holes of golf at Cherry Hills Country Club. According to the Encore newsletter I picked up at Building 500, once known as Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, Ike "complained of chest pains, but but continued to play, assuming it was heartburn."

Q: But it was a heart attack?

A: Right. One of the symptoms the American Heart Association warns you about.

Q: So he went to the hospital?

A: He went back to the Doud's home. "He awoke the next morning at 2 a.m. from chest pains that were not subdued by Milk of Magnesia."

Q: Even I, a layperson and not a doctor, can see the difficulty of subduing a full-blown widowmaker with Milk of Magnesia.

A: Exactly. It wasn't until that afternoon that the Fitzsimons docs administered an EKG to POTUS and "announced that Eisenhower had a coronary thrombosis condition that would be best treated at Fitzsimons."

Q: Don't docs now say that "minutes means muscle," that time is of the essence in the treatment of any heart attack?

A: They didn't know that in 1955.

Q: What did they know?

A: From Encore: "While the American Heart Association was founded in 1924, little was known about heart disease. Doctors knew that death could occur, but provided no causes, symptoms of treatment for coronary thrombosis.... Since the 1920s, heart disease has continued to be America's number-one killer."

Q: That's progress. So the President of the United States, the man who whipped the Nazis, received no treatment for his heart attack? No oblation? No stent? No blood thinners? No pacemaker? No bypass? No weeks of painstaking rehab on the treadmill and weight machines?

A: Those were all treatments of the future. The good news is that the president's seven weeks of rehab in Denver alerted the world to a dangerous killer. When you had your heart attack, the medical establishment had almost 60 years of research behind it.

Q: I could have died.

A: But you didn't. You walk around with a machine in your chest that regulates atrial fibrillation (A-fib) and will shock you back to the present should you ever experience catastrophic heart failure.

Q: One of my earliest memories is from Aurora, Colorado. I was four. We lived in the neighborhood across Colfax Avenue from Fitzsimons. My father pointed out the lights of Room 8002 and announced that the President of the United States was recuperating from a heart attack in that room. Memories are funny things. I'm not sure why I remember it. It's possible that my father told me about it later. He was a good storyteller.

A: When you were in Denver last week, did you get to tour Room 8002 at Fitzsimons, now known as The Eisenhower Suite? It's been lovingly restored by the University of Colorado Hospital, an entity that obviously cares about history and science. It now looks like it did in September of 1955, when the leader of the free world and his wife and a secret service detail lived there.

Q: It was a quick visit. I was in town to take my daughter Annie to some medical appointments. But I will be back. It may have led to my own recovery from coronary artery disease. In Eisenhower's Heart Attack, Clarence Lasby, M.D., states: "The eight floor became, in a way, the nation's first coronary care unit... where shifts of cardiologists, nurses, technicians, medical corpsmen, dietitians, cooks, and security staff were present on a 24-hour basis to serve the patient and his family."

A: I love historic sites and museums. I'm curious. Alive and curious. Thanks, Ike.

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