Cheney Shooting Victim Suffers Heart Attack

Harry Whittington, the Texas lawyer shot by Vice President Dick Cheney in a hunting accident Saturday, suffers a mild heart attack Tuesday while undergoing evaluation of his condition. Doctors are optimistic about his recovery, but will keep him in the hospital another week.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris. After a late night full of jokes and a morning of hearing them told again around the water cooler, the story of Vice President Dick Cheney's hunting accident has taken a serious turn. The man the vice president inadvertently sprayed with birdshot has suffered what doctors are describing as a minor heart attack. The wounded man is 78-year-old Harry Whittington, and doctors say a shotgun pellet has reached his heart. He's been moved back into intensive care. The news came as the White House was trying hard to move past the incident, as NPR's David Greene reports.

DAVID GREENE reporting:

There had been talk today that Texas lawyer Harry Whittington might leave the Corpus Christi hospital where he's been since the shooting on Saturday. But at a midday briefing, Hospital Administrator Peter Banko said there had been a change in the patient's medical condition. One of the pellets from the vice president's gun had become lodged somewhere near Whittington's heart.

Mr. PETER BANKO (Administrator, Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi- Memorial, Corpus Christi, Texas): Some of the birdshot appears to have moved and lodged into a part of his heart, causing the atrial fib and what we would say is a minor heart attack.

GREENE: But not a heart attack in the traditional sense, according to Dr. David Blanchard, chief of emergency care at the hospital. Whittington, Blanchard said, didn't have any symptoms of a heart attack, but the pellet began to cause inflammation in the heart.

Dr. DAVID BLANCHARD (Chief of emergency care, Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial, Corpus Christi, Texas): When that occurs, there is irritability to the heart muscle, because the heart is a muscle, and it recognizes that there's a foreign body there. And as a result, the chambers of the heart, the two top chambers, not the bottom, were beating irregularly. It's basically like an electrical short circuit.

GREENE: Whittington, who was moved out of intensive care yesterday, was moved back to the ICU today. But Blanchard said his prognosis for a full recovery remains good, and that carrying some pellets lodged in his body would not prevent his leading a normal life.

Dr. BLANCHARD: We're dealing with an individual that has good coronary arteries. He is 78 years of age. There is always the potential for all kinds of problems, and we know that when people are put into the hospital. We have every specialist available to take care and to deal with problems should they occur. We are very, very optimistic that with Mr. Whittington's strong heart, his personality, his stamina, the will, that he will do very well. And we're prepared to deal with anything that may develop.

GREENE: Still, news of Whittington's complication was sobering. The late night talk shows had all poked fun at the vice president Monday night, and this morning the White House seemed eager to join in making light of the incident. The NCAA champion Texas Longhorns were visiting, so there was a lot of Longhorn orange around the White House. Spokesman Scott McClellan joked that it wasn't hunter's orange, in case Cheney might be around.

Then news of Whittington's condition began to trickle in. According to Cheney's office, he heard about new complications when he arrived at work in the morning. But the vice president and his staff decided to let the doctors in Texas actually make the announcement. McClellan says he heard about Whittington's heart attack just before his noon briefing, in which he said nothing about it to reporters.

Press Secretary SCOTT MCCLELLAN: Well, I think Mr. Whittington remains in our thoughts and prayers. We all want to make sure that he's okay and that he gets home and he recovers fully. And that's where our focus is and that's where it will continue to be.

GREENE: Reporters continue to pepper McClellan with questions about why it took so long for the vice president's office to reveal the incident, but the spokesman refused to answer most of them.

Mr. MCCLELLAN: If you all want to continue to focus on this, you all can spend your time on it. We're going to keep focusing on the present priorities of the American people, like talking about how to make healthcare more affordable and accessible. We've got important work to do for the American people, and that's where we're going to keep our focus. You're welcome to continue to focus on these issues. I'm moving on.

GREENE: And after McClellan finished briefing, Mr. Bush moved on with his afternoon schedule.

Unidentified Man: Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the United States and Mrs. Laura Bush, accompanied by the University of Texas head football coach, Mack Brown.

GREENE: He welcomed the college football team from his home state into the Rose Garden.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Oh, yeah. Please be seated.

GREENE: Neither the president nor vice president has said anything publicly yet about Whittington. Cheney's office said he did speak to Whittington by phone this afternoon, wished him well and asked if there was anything he needed.

David Greene, NPR News, the White House.

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