Sick Presidents

The nation was startled when resident Trump went into the hospital last weekend. It recalled other leaders who have gotten sick. For the most part, the information we, the public, received was not the truth.

Whether they were unwilling to relinquish their power or didn’t want to be perceived as vulnerable, several presidents covered up their illnesses.. Here’s a look at some of the presidents who have battled serious illnesses while in office.

The most audacious was Grover Cleveland. In 1893, the public was told that Cleveland had gone on a fishing trip. Actually, he was having a cancerous tumor removed on a yacht in Long Island Sound.

The world did not know the truth for 24 years. It’s probably one of the most successful coverups in American political history. 

Four presidents died from natural causes while in office—and, for some, the cause of death remains in dispute. (Another four were assassinated.) Presidents have suffered strokes, heart attacks, and severe gastrointestinal diseases. 

Though historians long believed President William Henry Harrison died of pneumonia, some modern researchers believe his cause of death may have been typhoid fever—caused by contamination in the White House water supply.

William Henry Harrison was only 32 days into his term as the ninth president of the United States when he became the first president to die in office. Historians have long believed that Harrison fell sick after delivering a nearly two-hour-long inaugural address without wearing a coat or hat on the bitterly cold morning of March 4, 1841. His health rapidly deteriorated in the weeks that followed and he died of pneumonia on April 4.

In 2014, however, that account was called into question by a study of Harrison’s medical records that was published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases. Although Harrison’s physician Thomas Miller did declare pneumonia to be the cause of death, researchers Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak argue that typhoid fever was a more likely culprit as it would have been consistent with Harrison’s symptoms, which included abdominal pain, diarrhea, constipation, chills, muscle pain, and respiratory symptoms.

In 1919, then-President Woodrow Wilson was stricken by the Spanish flu followed by a stroke six months later. Wilson was incapacitated for the rest of his term in office—but was able to cover up the extent of his illness with the help of his wife, Edith, who took on many of his routine duties.

From his first days in the White House, America’s longest-serving president had hidden from the public his inability to walk unaided. The acquiescence of journalists and acquaintances to keep private the fact that he needed a wheelchair was exacerbated in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s’ final year when the president’s health was markedly deteriorating.

“Physically, he’s just going to pieces,” his running mate, Harry S. Truman, told an aide upon seeing the president. Months later, a stroke killed FDR, and Truman became president.

“A digestive upset.” That was the term the White House used to tell the public of Dwight Eisenhower’s heart attack in September 1955, the first of several serious medical incidents during his presidency. A cardiologist urged him not to run for re-election in 1956 … advice he ignored. Nine months after the heart attack, he underwent emergency surgery for a bowel obstruction that led to a diagnosis of Crohn’s Disease.

His lengthy recuperation spurred consideration of what would become, after John F. Kennedy’s assassination in 1967, the 25th Amendment, which provides for temporary replacement of a president who is incapacitated. Eisenhower had still more medical issues in office. In 1957, he suffered a stroke, but managed to complete his term.

The Trump announcement has been called the most serious threat to a serving president’s life since Ronald Reagan survived an assassin’s bullet in 1981. Reagan also made it through three minor skin cancer operations and was dogged by accusations of mental impairment. His son, Ron Reagan, said he saw early signs of Alzheimer’s during his dad’s presidency, but the elder Reagan was not diagnosed with Alzheimer’s until 1994, five years after leaving office.

A 2015 analysis detected subtle changes in Reagan’s speech patterns during his second term, including a reduced vocabulary. But the researchers said their findings did not prove dementia that could have impaired his decision-making or judgment in office.


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