Presidential Health Issues

Health in the White House: A Peek into Presidential Health Problems

Our president’s may seem infallible, but they are human just like us. In fact, all 45 of the president’s we’ve had have suffered from common health problems — and some have gone through more exotic ailments. If you look through the medical history of our presidents, you may find something you didn’t know. Did you know that William McKinley once came down with a rare form of influenza called “grippe”? Or that Andrew Johnson had typhoid fever? Of course, knowing the end result of their ailments is only part of the story. The reasons behind the ailments are just as interesting.

Did George Washington Have Wooden Teeth?

It’s commonly taught that George Washington had wooden teeth, but that isn’t actually true. However, Washington did have some problems with his pearly whites. Often described as being cold, aloof, and difficult to deal with, Washington’s off putting personality in his later years was likely caused by pain in his teeth (or his lack of them). It’s hard to pin down the exact cause of Washington’s dental issues. John Adams told the world in his autobiography that Washington himself blamed it on cracking walnuts, while historians blame Washington’s genetics. It seems likely that Washington was born with a greater risk for dental issues, and the dental hygiene of the time would have lent itself well to leaving the problems unsolved. Despite cycling through several of the world’s greatest dentists, George Washington could never find a cause (nor a cure) for this tooth problems. Perhaps wooden teeth would have been better than the pain he was dealing with.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Polio, and What That Was Like

It’s widely known that Franklin Delano Roosevelt suffered from polio, a disease which at one time had plagued many Americans. For a period, from Roosevelt’s childhood through the early 60s, polio seemed like an unstoppable force. At its worst in America during 1952, 57,628 people were diagnosed with the disease. Of those people, 3,145 died and 21,269 were left with mild to severe paralysis. At its height, polio was likened to the Bubonic Plague, and the Spanish Flu (which would have still been in recent memory). A more modern day metaphor would be to say that polio was the cancer of the time: it was widespread, hard to prevent, and nearly impossible to cure.

Polio, sometimes also referred to as infantile paralysis, is a viral infection much like the flu, helping it to spread and rendering early vaccines useless. Most people infected by the poliovirus will see no symptoms — 72 of every 100 people carrying the virus see no symptoms, according to the CDC. It’s possible that this is genetic, and has not always been true: people suffering from the virus may not have been able to reproduce, leading to a higher rate of immunity in modern times. The earliest symptoms of polio are similar to the flu, and will last 2 to 5 days before going away on their own. From there, a small group of people will develop further symptoms in stages: first, paresthesia which causes a constant feeling of pins and needles, then, meningitis (an infection spreading to the spinal area), and, finally, paralysis eventually leading to death. FDR was one of this small group, though death was far off for the president.

Polio is not nearly as common today as it was in the 20th century.  There’s no known cure for polio, but there is a vaccination that is incredibly effective. While it took quite some time for the vaccination to be found, it cleared up cases of the disease with remarkable efficiency. It is now recommended that children receive the polio vaccination at 2 and 4 months old. Without the vaccine, there is a possibility that polio will not only return, but will also be able to evolve to defeat modern vaccinations. Polio has also been known to pop up in unvaccinated countries, but it has yet to find its way back into the United States.

Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Andrew Jackson — Bullet Wounds

Maybe there is one way that some presidents have been able to be as superhuman as the title would suggest. While we’ve had an unfortunate number of presidents die at the wrong end of a gun, at least three have been shot and lived to tell the tale: Theodore Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan, and Andrew Jackson. In fact, one of the most famous stories about Jackson is about (one of the times) when he was shot. After having a bullet put in him, Jackson walked up to the shooter and hit him upside the head with a cane.

Surprisingly, being shot by a gun isn’t as fatal as you’d think: 80-95% of people who are shot survive. If the bullet misses any vital organs, you’re likely to be okay. Some organs (such as the heart, and brain) are impossible to come back from, but if a gunshot wound is treated correctly, your chances of survival are high. Correct treatment of a gunshot involves removing the bullet, removing any pieces of shattered bone, cleaning the wound, and often closing it up. In some cases, pieces of the bullet cannot be removed, i.e. if they’re close to the heart. In this case, they do need to be watched to ensure there is no infection.

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