Today is President’s Day, and although we wholeheartedly honor our 1st President and Founding Father George Washington today, it seems as fine a day as any to ask:
Did you know that one of our Presidents lived in extraordinary chronic pain for most of his entire life?
Known for his good looks, apparent vigor, and charismatic appeal…
John F. Kennedy’s image of youthful energy and good health was a carefully crafted façade that could only have been maintained in another day and time. The real story, disconcerting though it is to contemplate now would have been extremely hard to believe at the time. It is an awe-inspiring story of iron-willed fortitude and heroic inner-strength in mastering the difficulties of life lived in chronic pain.
“Tan and fit, JFK exuded strength and vitality despite the fact that his general health was quite poor and his back and gastrointestinal pain were almost incapacitating,” says author Aston L. Hassett, a psychologist and associate research scientist in the Department of Anesthesiology at the University of Michigan.
“At least half the days he spent on this earth were days of intense physical pain.”
~Robert F. Kennedy Oral History
(John F. Kennedy Presidential Library
“The lifelong health problems of John F. Kennedy constitute one of the best-kept secrets of recent U.S. history—no surprise, because if the extent of those problems had been revealed while he was alive, his presidential ambitions would likely have been dashed…Yet there is another way of viewing the silence regarding his health—as the quiet stoicism of a man struggling to endure extraordinary pain and distress and performing his presidential (and pre-presidential) duties largely undeterred by his physical suffering. Does this not also speak to his character, but in a more complex way? ” ~Robert Dalleck from his article on John F. Kennedy in The Atlantic, Dec. 2002 .
Using personal letters, Navy records, and oral histories, biographers and historians have begun to fill in a picture of Jack Kennedy as ill and ailment-ridden for his entire life. The full extent of Kennedy’s medical ordeals had not been known until roughly a decade ago when a small committee of Kennedy-administration friends and associates agreed to open a collection of his papers for the years 1955–63, according to The New York Times.
JFK had low back pain almost constantly, perhaps starting with a minor sports injury in 1940. A specific cause was never identified but he had 5 back surgeries including lumbar-sacral and left sacroiliac fusion surgeries. None brought full relief and one, in 1954, even led to a post-operative coma and septicemia for which he, as a Catholic, received last rites. In testament to his immense strength and drive he carried on to write his book Profiles in Courage while recovering.
He went on to use trigger point injections and exercises, wore a back brace and used crutches to help him walk (when not in the public eye) and took hot baths several times a day. Prescription records also show that he took an extraordinary variety of medications: steroids, painkillers, antianxiety medication, stimulants and sleeping pills to help live with and manage his pain.
Kennedy’s health problems were not enough to deter him from running for president, but it is interesting to note he went so far as to state he believed that the many medications he took helped to ensure his competence to deal with the demands of the office.
Max Jacobson, a doctor from Germany who had made a reputation for himself by treating celebrities, worked with President Kennedy and his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy, helping them to combat depression and fatigue with his “pep pills” (amphetamines). Jacobson, whom patients called “Dr. Feelgood,” also administered painkillers and back injections to JFK. He believed they made him less dependent on his crutches.
JFK dismissed questions about his doctor’s injections, saying, “I don’t care if it’s horse piss. It works.”
Ironically, although Lee Harvey Oswald killed Kennedy before the president’s own health problems could, there is evidence suggesting that Kennedy’s physical condition contributed to his death. On November 22, 1963, the day that he was shot,
“Kennedy was, as always, wearing a corset-like back brace as he rode through Dallas. Oswald’s first bullet struck him in the back of the neck. Were it not for the back brace, which held him erect, the second, fatal shot to the head might not have found its mark.”~ Dr. Hassett.