On May 14, the American public learned — rather abruptly — that first lady Melania Trump was recovering from kidney surgery. It’s rare for a politician to keep something like that a secret, but for our current private and quiet FLOTUS, it seems to be par for the course.
But Trump is far from the only first lady to have health problems during or after her stint in the White House. In fact, she’s not even the first to try and keep the details to herself.
The details on Trump’s kidney surgery
Apparently, Melania Trump underwent an embolization procedure at Walter Reed. Sources say it was performed because of a benign kidney issue, and there were no complications. President Trump was not with her during her surgery, but he has visited her since. Considering our first lady is a very private person, it makes sense that she didn’t announce her plans to the public.
Next: This former FLOTUS battled consumption and acute alcoholism.
Eliza McCardle Johnson
Eliza McCardle Johnson married Andrew Johnson when she was just a teenager, but it wasn’t until she birthed her fifth child that her health problems really started. She suffered from consumption, or “progressive bodily wasting,” a condition that was exacerbated by her alcoholism. She avoided public appearances as much as possible and suffered from poor health until her death at age 65.
Next: Alcoholism also plagued this former first lady, and so did cancer.
As the wife of President Gerald Ford, Betty Ford had a lot on her plate. She was known for being upfront and honest about her life, including her battle with alcoholism and prescription pill addiction, which paid off when she later opened the successful Betty Ford Center for addiction.
But just a few weeks after she became first lady, Ford was diagnosed with malignant breast cancer and had to undergo a mastectomy. But her openness and honesty about the process raised visibility for the disease, which Americans had always been reluctant to discuss.
Next: Epilepsy in a first lady would be tough to hide these days.
Ida Saxton McKinley
President William McKinley’s bride, Ida Saxton McKinley, had a very sad life. She lost her mother and two daughters within proximity to each other, and she developed epileptic seizures and fainting spells soon after. When her husband was shot in 1901, she held his hand until he died, and then went into seclusion until she passed away six years later.
Next: This poor woman’s stress didn’t help her heart condition.
Rachel Donelson Robards Jackson
Rachel Jackson never even got the chance to become first lady. Before Andrew Jackson could be inaugurated, she died of a heart attack. Many think her death was related to the grief and stress she felt during the campaign, during which her private life — she was a divorcee — was highly publicized. After purchasing a gown for her husband’s Inauguration, Jackson had a heart attack in the street, dying a few months later in her husband’s arms.
Next: This FLOTUS made headlines when she had a mastectomy.
Nancy Reagan made headlines — and faced criticism — when she had a full mastectomy for her breast cancer in 1987. Reagan staunchly defended her decision, explaining that had she chosen a less invasive operation, she would have had to have more follow-up treatment that could have delayed her recovery and interfered with her schedule as first lady.
Next: This was the first FLOTUS to die while still holding her title.
Letitia Christian Tyler
The wife of President John Tyler holds the dubious honor of being the first first lady to die while still holding the title. She suffered a debilitating stroke when she was 49, and she never fully recovered. She suffered a second stroke in 1842 and died a few months later.
Next: Melania wasn’t the first FLOTUS who struggled with kidney issues.
Ellen Axson Wilson
The first wife of President Woodrow Wilson held the title of first lady for 17 months before she died of Bright’s Disease, a kidney ailment that was always fatal back then. Upon her diagnosis, she and her doctor agreed to keep the truth from the president so he wouldn’t be too upset to perform his duties.
Next: This first lady was considered snobbish, but she was actually hiding a dark secret.
Elizabeth Monroe, wife to James Monroe, was seemingly always moody and withdrawn, so many people thought she was a snob. In reality, she suffered from a mysterious illness (likely epilepsy or narcolepsy) that caused her to fall to the floor, unconscious, at unpredictable times. Understandably, this made her avoid social situations whenever possible.
Next: Was she mentally ill, or did she have this disorder?
Mary Todd Lincoln
Historians have often contemplated the bizarre behavior of first lady Mary Todd Lincoln, which included frequent moody outbursts and tantrums, depression, anxiety, and random shopping binges. Most have chalked it up to mental illness, but some say she had pernicious anemia, a disease caused by a vitamin-B12 deficiency.
Next: Another first lady had surgery while holding her title.
In 1977, Rosalyn Carter underwent a procedure to remove a nonmalignant lump from her breast. That same year, she also had a procedure called a dilation and curettage, which is often performed to seek and hopefully correct the cause of excess bleeding. There were no complications.
Next: Pregnancies, miscarriages, and missing her husband took a toll on this first lady’s health.
Caroline Scott Harrison
The first lady to Benjamin Harrison had always been plagued with respiratory problems, but it was her three pregnancies, a miscarriage, and being separated from her husband during the Civil War that harmed Caroline Harrison’s already fragile health. Upon hearing rumors that her husband was having an affair with her cousin, Harrison headed to the Adirondacks to for the summer to heal her heart and her tuberculosis. But it didn’t work — tuberculosis killed her at 60.
Next: This FLOTUS went to great lengths to appear healthier than she was.
Considering Mrs. Kennedy appeared at the Inaugural Balls in 1961 in a white gown and cape a mere eight weeks after delivering her son by emergency C-section, the public assumed she was a vision of perfect health. But the truth is, she suffered from crippling exhaustion, often relying on Dexedrine, a frequently prescribed amphetamine medication intended to infuse “energy” into the system. She also had chronic sinusitis, which sometimes kept her from public appearances.
Next: She was typically upfront about her thoughts on everything, including her disease.
Former FLOTUS Barbara Bush followed the precedent set by Betty Ford and Nancy Reagan and was honest when she was diagnosed with Graves’ Disease in 1989. While this thyroid condition isn’t fun, it’s not a fatal condition when diagnosed properly — it was complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that led to her death.
Next: Bush’s daughter in law wasn’t quite so open.
Laura Bush wasn’t quite as open about the news that she had a squamous cell carcinoma tumor removed from her right shin in November 2006. In fact, the public didn’t find out until five weeks after the surgery. She explained her decision by saying the surgery was “no big deal, and we knew it was no big deal at the time.”
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