Friday, January 18, 2008

The Churchill Series - Jan. 18, 2008

(One of a series of weekday posts about the life of Winston S. Churchill.)

Readers’ Note: This post is the second in a two-post series. The first is here.


On the morning of December 15, 1943 Churchill remained in bed. His temperature was still 101 and there were no signs his pneumonia had lessened.

During the day, specialist physicians were flown from Cairo and Italy to Tunisia. They administered tests and prescribed medications. They told Churchill to cancel his work schedule. He reduced it somewhat, agreeing to see only one person at a time.

On December 16, Churchill summoned his personal physician, Lord Charles Moran. “I don’t feel well,” he said. “My heart is doing something funny – it feels to be bumping all over the place.”

Churchill was suffering a heart attack, at least his second in less than two years. (The other occurred during the night of December 26/27, 1941 when he was staying with President Roosevelt at the White House. News of that attack was not made public at the time.)

That evening he was “weak but cheerful.” He asked his daughter Sarah to read to him from Jane Austin’s Pride and Prejudice.

The following day Clementine arrived from England. They'd not seen each other for almost six weeks. They dined alone that evening.

The next day, Churchill suffered another heart attack.

Let's stop the narrative here to reflect before continuing.

During the course of a single week Churchill, age sixty-nine and with a coronary history, had pneumonia all the week and suffered two heart attacks.

Of course, his physicians feared for his life. In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that he survived at all, to say nothing of his living on for another twenty years.

From what source comes such vitality? We can only wonder.

Then there's the matter of Churchill’s behavior as a patient. In that, as in so many things, he wasn’t at all like most others.

Standard medical treatment at that time called for complete bed rest of six weeks or more following a heart attack. And the time was to be spent very quietly with no work or upset.

Churchill, as we’ve seen, would not accept such a routine. So was he reckless to press on with his extraordinary work schedule with all its enormous strains?

Well, before you answer, consider this: Moran says that Churchill repeatedly asked doctors who prescribed bed rest and quiet whether they had any evidence that such a regimen benefited a patient.

They had to tell him no.

He even asked if any of them knew of a single case where someone had gotten out of bed a day or two after a heart attack and been the worse for it.

Again, the physicians said no.

So Churchill saw no reason for not going on with his schedule as his energy permitted.

He decided to continue meeting with people one at a time. He told his doctors he would get out of bed as soon as he felt strong enough.

Now back to our narrative.

By December 19 Churchill’s temperature was normal and Moran said “the signs of pneumonia are disappearing.”

In the succeeding days his strength returned even as he continued to work beyond the limits the doctors thought wise.

By Christmas Eve Churchill felt strong enough to get out of bed for the first time in two weeks.

On Christmas Day he attended a brief religious service and then hosted a luncheon for military commanders. “His doctors are quite unable to control him,” his Private Secretary John Martin recorded, “and cigars etc have now returned.”

During the rest of December and into January Churchill maintained an active but reduced work schedule while also relaxing with painting and visits from friends.

On January 14, 1944 Churchill left North Africa by plane for Gibraltar where he boarded the battleship HMS King George V for the trip back to England. The ship arrived at Plymouth on the night of January 17. The King had sent his train to meet Churchill and take him on to London.

Of Churchill’s arrival in Plymouth an aide recorded, “There were no political, strategic or diplomatic dramas – the atmosphere was one of immense relief that the PM was back alive and well and truly in control of events.”
For references to Lord Moran, see his Churchill: Stuggle for Survival. (pgs. 17-18 and 161-170)

For other references, see Martin Gilbert, Churchill: A Life (pgs. 762-767)


Anonymous said...

It's interesting to see how care of MI's has changed over the decades.Pres.Eisenhower's cardiologist was the BIG NAME Paul Dudley White.Unlike most of the heart docs of the '50's he liked to get the patients moving.One can also wonder if Churchill's port had the propretie of boosting his HDL.That way ,it could kind of negate the efects of his cigars.And a Happy New Year to you.

JWM said...

Dear Corwin,

I don't think there's one i a 1,000 people who know of Paul Dudley White, Ike and getting "patients" moving.

But White's belief and Ike courage to get up and out when standard post MI protocol was 6 weeks complete bed rest helped dramatically change recovery treatment.

I hope some day to post a short series on it.

Churchill and the post is interesting. You no doubt know, or won't be surprised to learn, there is discussion today amoung Churchillians about the possible benefits of his red wine drinking.

Light up!

It's always good hearing from you, Corwin.