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Presidential Maladies: A modern look at Woodrow Wilson's stroke

Posted on Feb. 15, 2013 ( comments)
When President Woodrow Wilson had a stroke in 1919, little could be done.

In honor of Presidents Day this month, we've asked MultiCare's health experts to look back at the ailments of past U.S. presidents, then offer their perspective on how these conditions might be treated differently today. President Woodrow Wilson's stroke in 1919 is the first in our series, "Presidential Maladies."

The President: Woodrow Wilson

The year: 1919

The malady: Stroke


Just weeks after President Woodrow Wilson visited Tacoma as part of a grueling 8,000-mile, 40-city tour of the West, he suffered a stroke in the White House in the early morning hours of Oct. 2, 1919.

President Wilson’s longtime personal physician called renowned neurologist Dr. Francis X. Dercum, who caught the next train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. – a 140 mile trip. Dr. Dercum’s examination of President Wilson began about 4:30 that afternoon.

“As President, Wilson would have had access to the greatest medical minds and the newest treatments,” according to a story in the Journal of the History of Neurosciences. “Still, his physicians, no matter how educated or skilled they were, remained relatively powerless. Their knowledge about stroke was too limited in 1919 to positively affect Wilson's outcome much.”

How treatment is different today:

When a patient is experiencing symptoms of a stroke, time lost is brain lost. Today, we’re fortunate to have the experts and the technology to treat stroke right here in Tacoma – not a 140 mile train ride away. In fact, Tacoma General is the only hospital in Pierce County to be recognized for providing the highest level of stroke care.

“Stroke remains a difficult disease to diagnose and treat. With that said, the advancement of neurologic imaging and the emergence of coordinated stroke systems, outcomes today are very different from even 10 years ago, let alone 100,” said Dr. Brian Kott, Medical Director of the Stroke Program and Neuro-Interventional Radiology at MultiCare. “Today, we are able to see the causes of acute stroke through imaging, and therefore direct the appropriate treatment in a rapid and systematic approach.”

Tacoma General is one of only a few institutions in the state that offer the most advanced stroke and neurovascular care. A comprehensive approach to stroke care includes 24/7 neurointerventional radiology capabilities with physicians, nurses and technologists acting as a team. Tacoma General is certified as a Primary Stroke Center by The Joint Commission and is categorized as a Level 1 (Comprehensive) Stroke Center by the Washington State Department of Health – the highest level available.

“If the president of the United State today were to suffer an acute stroke, he or she would be rushed to the nearest stroke center via a systematic EMS protocol, just like any other patient in the community,” Dr. Kott said. “Rapid diagnosis and treatment could be instituted within an hour of stroke onset utilizing advanced medical and/or advanced endovascular treatment. The patient would also receive advanced Neuro ICU care as well as in-patient neurologic services. As the patient recovers, they would receive the most innovative and successful rehabilitation services, either as an inpatient or as an outpatient.

“All of this translates to significantly improved outcomes and often a return to normal life. And what's more, it's available for all people, not just the President.”

MultiCare’s stroke program continues to evolve with advances in medicine and MultiCare's stroke research through the MultiCare Institute for Research & Innovation.

“It seems like every year there’s something new with stroke – a device or a new procedure we can do,” said Karen Kiesz, RN, MN, CNRN, and Stroke Program Manager. “I really like being involved in the research aspect, because the advances in stroke care are getting better all the time. I really feel my role is to make sure the hospital is prepared to meet the next challenge, and have cutting-edge treatment and guidelines in place to give the best care for any type of stroke patient.”

Historical significance:

“The year 1919 was shaping up as one of the worst in American history, and from this time on the president would know little or nothing about what was happening,” according to the story in the Journal of the History of Neurosciences. “For the rest of Wilson’s term of office, the country would stumble along virtually without a president.

“Wilson's stroke forced the American public to confront stroke, and laypeople came to identify stroke as a nervous disorder, rather than a condition rooted solely in psychological phenomena.”

Read more: Gout and Grover Cleveland

Read more: JFK's Adrenal Disease

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