The Secret History of Doctors Who’ve Lied About U.S. Presidents’ Health
During Donald Trump’s physical evaluation, doctors concluded he was in excellent health. Though the president’s love for McDonald’s is well-documented, his heart and lungs were strong — and he even weighed less than most expected. After the evaluation, however, the public was skeptical. Were we duped by the doctor, or could he, in fact, be this healthy?
Trump aside, it turns out not every president has been honest with their health. And many of them also had doctors who kept their illnesses a secret. Here’s the truth about which presidents were entangled in health scandals.
1. John F. Kennedy had crippling back pain from Addison’s disease
You know John F. Kennedy for his famous assassination, but the young, charismatic leader wasn’t as healthy as most suspected. The Los Angeles Times reports Kennedy had Addison’s disease, a rare condition that affects hormone production. He also dealt with other symptoms, like pain and nausea, because of it.
One of Kennedy’s opponents during his campaign actually brought up the disease in an effort to demean the soon-to-be president. But his physician was clever and said Kennedy didn’t have Addison’s from tuberculosis — which was technically true. Kennedy certainly had the disease, but he likely got it from another autoimmune disease, not TB.
Next: Kennedy’s many medications were also kept a secret.
2. Could Kennedy have had a pill problem?
It wasn’t just Addison’s disease Kennedy dealt with. ABC News reports he also had colitis, prostatitis, and osteoporosis so severe he couldn’t even reach for papers across his desk. For this reason, he was no stranger to taking medications to ease the pain.
The president reportedly took up to 12 medications at a time, and he’d take even more during stressful periods. Codeine, methadone, Ritalin, and steroids were in his regular repertoire. And at one point he was even taking anti-psychotics due to severe mood changes that concerned Jackie Kennedy. The public didn’t know, of course.
Next: This infamous president nearly died — and the public had no idea.
3. Ronald Reagan lost nearly half of his blood volume when he was shot
It wasn’t the attempted assassination of Reagan that was kept from the public, but rather just how severe his situation really was. Secret Service agent Jerry Parr recounts the day to CBS, saying he made the call to take Reagan directly to the emergency room as soon as they thought the president may have been shot.
At 70 years old, Reagan lost about half of his blood volume — but he somehow pulled through. And careful message control as well as a great team of doctors ensured as quick (and quiet) a recovery as possible.
Next: Here’s how news stations helped dupe the public about Reagan’s health.
4. And news stations made it seem like Reagan was totally fine after the shooting
It wasn’t just the doctors who helped hide Reagan’s near-death — it was the news stations, too. Newsweek says the nightly news showed clips of Reagan up and about the hospital in good spirits after he was shot. But in reality, the president was only awake for one hour per day. The moments they showed on TV were carefully hand-selected to give the public hope.
When Reagan finally got back to the White House, he also reportedly was only lucid for brief periods. And his aides were actually fearful he would end up crippled for life.
Next: The public had no idea this president’s wife essentially ran the country while he was ill.
5. Woodrow Wilson’s stroke was hidden as a ‘nervous reaction’
He was never the image of perfect health, but Woodrow Wilson and those closest to him worked hard to conceal his illness from the public. PBS reports Wilson was on a speaking tour when he experienced a “mini-stroke” — though of course, his private secretary announced he was simply having “a nervous reaction in his digestive organs.”
Wilson experienced a full-blown stroke after this, which left him paralyzed. But only his physician, wife, and chief of staff were able to see him, as they wanted to hide his condition from the public for as long as possible.
Next: The 29th president had serious heart problems.
6. Warren Harding’s heart troubles were kept a secret
From the very beginning of his term, Warren Harding was known for his health issues. PBS reports he had problems with shortness of breath, and he experienced chest pain due to his delicate, enlarged heart. His many doctors included homeopathic physicians and naval officers who tried to help the ailing president, but to no avail.
When Harding finally died, Herbert Hoover said he died of a stroke, and rumors swirled that his wife, Florence Harding, actually poisoned him. In truth, it was certainly the heart problems that plagued him his whole life that eventually killed him.
Next: This president hid his failing kidneys from the public.
7. Chester Arthur had a deadly kidney ailment
You certainly weren’t alive to remember this Republican president. But Chester Arthur, like so many others in the 1800s, had an illness that eventually killed him.
Men’s Health explains he had “Bright’s disease,” or several different kidney ailments that caused him to feel weak and tired. The public worried when they saw Arthur’s rapid weight loss and aged looks, but those closest to the president denied his illness. They instead said he had mild malaria and would be totally fine.
Next: This president secretly smuggled in doctors on the presidential yacht to treat his hidden illness.
8. Grover Cleveland had mouth cancer — and snuck in doctors to help hide it
When Grover Cleveland noticed a lump in his mouth, he was diagnosed with cancer by a head-and-neck surgeon, Newsweek reports. Cleveland didn’t feel as if he could share his grim prognosis with the country, of course, as he thought it would cause a total economic collapse. Instead, he secretly brought an entire team of doctors, nurses, surgeons, and dentists onto his yacht.
Cleveland explained his getaway as just taking vacation time. And it wasn’t until 15 years later did people know the truth.
Next: Everyone knew this president had polio — but other aspects of his illness were kept secret.
9. Franklin D. Roosevelt could barely walk
The public wasn’t bothered by the fact that Franklin D. Roosevelt had polio at age 39. They figured he was totally fine after his bought of sickness — but that’s only because of the expertly-performed cover up from Roosevelt’s doctors and the White House.
The New York Times reports Roosevelt needed the aid of heavy metal braces while standing due to paralysis from the polio. He also needed help simply getting around because his legs were so withered. Of course, the photographers were not to capture such moments on camera.
Next: Roosevelt’s doctor knew he would die during his term — but kept it a secret anyway.
10. And his doctor knew he wouldn’t live through his final term
Roosevelt died three months into his fourth term from a stroke — which surprised everyone except his doctors. Slate explains a surgeon who knew the president predicted he wouldn’t make it through his final term as president, and he was right. This information was hidden from the public, of course.
In addition to this, Roosevelt’s cardiologist knew the president had dangerously high blood pressure for years. He only disclosed this information many years after Roosevelt’s death, The New York Times says.
Next: This president hid a life-threatening heart attack.
11. Dwight Eisenhower never went to the hospital following a heart attack
What Dwight Eisenhower thought was just indigestion ended up being a serious heart attack. Slate explains Eisenhower experienced chest pains while on a fishing trip, so his wife called for his personal physician. And instead of taking him to a hospital right away, the physician chose to discretely treat him for the chest pain at home. It was only after 12 hours did Eisenhower finally receive emergency help.
Later, the physician said he thought Eisenhower was just having digestive issues — even though the medications he gave him were clearly for the heart.
Next: Eisenhower’s secret issues didn’t stop there.
12. And he had plenty of heart problems during his second term
Eisenhower recovered from his heart troubles — but that’s not where his health woes ended. Through his second term, he still dealt with high blood pressure, heart failure, and even a stroke. Newsweek says Eisenhower actually had a few close brushes with death during his presidency, and the public knew nothing about their severity. It was only when a stroke affected his speech did people start to wonder if he was fit to be president.
Next: Hillary Clinton being dragged into a van while passed out brought plenty of speculation.
13. Hillary Clinton hid her pneumonia by saying she was just ‘overheated’
She came close to snagging presidency once before — and Hillary Clinton and her team are also guilty of hiding illness from the public. The Telegraph reports Clinton was attending the 2016 anniversary commemoration of the Sept. 11 attacks when she collapsed. Video footage even shows secret service men dragging Clinton inside a van while she lost a shoe.
At the time, Clinton was still trying to save her campaign, so she quickly announced she felt just fine. While those closest to Clinton claimed she simply overheated, the public later found that her physician put her on antibiotics for pneumonia.
Next: He didn’t win the presidency — but he went to great lengths with his doctors to keep his cancer a secret.
14. Bill Clinton’s competition had a cancer recurrence no one knew about
He didn’t win against Bill Clinton — but he did have plenty of secrets to hide. Paul Tsongas, former Massachusetts senator, was a cancer survivor when he first ran against Clinton in the 1992 Democratic Presidential campaign, The Baltimore Sun notes. He frequently brought up how surviving cancer changed him for the better. And when the disease came back, he hid it for as long as he could.
Tsongas and his doctors knew the candidate’s cancer had come back, but they instead chose to insist he was cancer-free for fear the truth would cost him the election. He died just five years later.
Next: Are presidents today still secretive about their health records?
15. Presidents still aren’t required to release their health records
Information travels much faster thanks to the internet, but as far as presidential health is concerned, there’s no requirement for the White House to release the status of a president’s health.
Dr. Connie Mariano, a previous physician for presidents, tells CNN the White House medical unit will give the media a health summary of the current president. But as far as what that summary entails is up to the president’s discretion. The commander in chief has to sign off on what info will be released, which often means details of any illnesses are silenced.
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