A Stroke Couldn't Stop Gerald Ford

Former President Gerald Ford after his stroke

He came to Philadelphia to attend the 2000 Republican convention. He went home a stroke survivor, flashing the familiar Ford optimism when he left the hospital. Reuters/Corbis hide caption

itoggle caption Reuters/Corbis

All About Strokes

The National Stroke Association describes the symptoms of a stroke, and provides information on risk factors and prevention, at its Web site.

It was the second night of the 2000 Republican Convention in Philadelphia. The GOP was saluting Gerald Ford, then 87 years old, for his years of service to the party. And the former president gave a series of interviews that should have sent up a huge red flag.

On C-Span, Ford was asked how the Republicans should deal with Iran. He responded that he enjoyed roast beef and onion. Later, NBC's Andrea Mitchell interviewed Ford. Worried that he was "off his game," she immediately called her husband, Ford's chief economic adviser Alan Greenspan, and told him, "Something is really wrong." She later told me she kicked herself that she didn't suggest to either Ford or his wife, Betty, that he immediately go to the hospital.

Many hours later, just after midnight, word came that Ford had arrived at Hahnemann University Hospital, complaining of pain in his face. Doctors who first saw him said the former president thought it was a sinus flare-up and insisted on returning to his hotel. Even though Ford had no patience to undergo a battery of tests, it was surprising that doctors did not administer a CAT scan or other tests. But a stubborn former president can be a formidable presence.

After a fitful night, Ford returned to the hospital later that morning at Betty's insistence. He acceded to a more thorough exam, which revealed a weakness on the left side. Ford couldn't touch his nose or walk very well. Turns out, he had suffered a series of relatively mild strokes that was apparently missed when he first arrived at the hospital.

The news had a familiar ring. The story broke as I was heading up Nightline's coverage of the Republican Convention. It was my first major assignment since returning to work after a serious stroke earlier that year. Like President Ford, I had visited the hospital prior to my official stroke diagnosis. In my case, there were nearly four months — not hours — between visits. When I was first rushed to the emergency room, doctors were unsure what to make of my sweats and momentary difficulty in walking. Fortunately, when I eventually suffered my stroke, I was rushed to the local hospital, then helicoptered to a second hospital, where I received splendid care and began a regimen of physical therapy.

Suddenly, that night in Philadelphia, my personal and professional lives converged. I had just got my footing back, literally, when one of the most famous Americans reminded me of my own mortality and the journey I had just completed.

Gerald Ford had become the most high-profile example of how the country and indeed, emergency room physicians, need better education on the signs of strokes. There is often precious little time to successfully treat a stroke. Ford had slurred his speech and was confused throughout the day in Philadelphia, yet no one urged him to get to the hospital. So in 2002, when Ted Koppel urged me to report on strokes for Nightline, I turned to Gerald Ford. If this could happen to a former president of the United States, what about the rest of us mere mortals?

When I sat down with Gerald Ford for an interview, he was eager to get the word out about the need for quick action at the first signs of stroke. He conceded that he should have been a better patient when he reluctantly visited the hospital during the GOP convention. "I exhibited my stubbornness and overrode what the doctors were telling me," he said. "In retrospect, they were right and I was wrong."

He also admitted that the diagnosis was sobering: "I had several very close friends about my age who had had a stroke and were seriously paralyzed. So when I was told I had a stroke, I couldn't help wonder if I was going to have those kind of aftereffects."

Ford and I were very lucky. Both of us recovered from our strokes; neither of us had any lingering damage. The former president's physical fitness likely worked in his favor. Although Chevy Chase lampooned Ford as uncoordinated and prone to stumbling, he could laugh at that image. In fact, Ford was quite disciplined throughout his life about exercise. He was, after all, a championship athlete on the University of Michigan football team.

By the time he and I had talked, Ford was in his 90th year. Remarkably, he had resumed his prestroke routine of swimming four laps every morning before breakfast and four laps before dinner.

A life well-lived. And a reminder that a stroke can be a bump in the road but doesn't have to be the end of it.

Richard L. Harris is acting managing editor of NPR and a former senior producer of ABC's Nightline. He has never played on a championship football team.

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