The Prime Minister's Little Flutter: Statesmen Deny Illness for Fear of Alarming the Public and Keep on Going. but Far More Worrying Is a Less Than Healthy Leader Spaced out on Medication

By Cook, Margaret | New Statesman (1996), October 11, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Prime Minister's Little Flutter: Statesmen Deny Illness for Fear of Alarming the Public and Keep on Going. but Far More Worrying Is a Less Than Healthy Leader Spaced out on Medication


Cook, Margaret, New Statesman (1996)


Now that Tony has been a sensible chap and got his little health problem sorted out, he probably wants to draw a line underneath events and move on. And I'm sure we all wish him well in this aim. Yet, now 51 and approaching the age where such nuisances will crop up with greater frequency, he needs admonishing. He has dragged his feet most irresponsibly over this atrial flutter. Perhaps the name, redolent of frivolity, misled him. After all, his own cardiologist dumbed down the seriousness by dismissing it as an irregular heartbeat. Yet, besides sudden death, arrhythmias can cause such complications as blackouts and heart failure, embolic strokes, gangrene or renal compromise, to name but a few. This is not an illness to dismiss lightly and ignore for fear of causing a "national scare".

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Yet Tony and his medical advisers are running true to type, the latest in a long tradition of statesmen denying illness for fear of causing public panic. I am not sure who these nervous members of the masses might be who would be sent hysterical by the PM being hors de combat. They seem to exist in the mind of any leader who ever became ill; in this delusion he is usually encouraged by those around him with much to lose: his family, close colleagues and, regrettably, his own personal doctor.

In 1941, with the US newly entered into the war, Winston Churchill fell ill with a pain in his chest and left arm. Lord Moran, his doctor, diagnosed a heart attack, but did not tell anyone, not even Churchill himself. So no steps were taken to protect him from fatal complications and recurrences. Moran adopted the same ostrich-like attitude when his patient suffered various strokes later. As he admitted, it was his job to see Churchill stayed in power and in office for as long as possible--as this was what he lived for--even if that meant idiosyncratic management. The meaning of medical responsibility and confidentiality in this kind of situation urgently needs to be debated, for patched-up parcels of polypathology such as Churchill, even in his war years, have undoubtedly made gross errors of judgement, with worldwide, century-long consequences.

In 1944, Franklin D Roosevelt decided to run for a fourth term as US president. He was terminally ill, according to the report of an impartial cardiologist, suffering malignant hypertension and heart failure. But his personal doctor chose to modify the language in the report and suppress the gravity of his condition to enable FDR to stand for re-election. Roosevelt failed in his crucial role of mediator at the Yalta conference, his mind so clouded that he fell asleep during discussions. …

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