Bush rests comfortably after surgery to implant pacemaker in brain

Thanks to a device similar to the one in Vice President Dick Cheney's heart, the nation has healthy, clear-thinking, plain-speaking leaders again.

Published July 13, 2001 6:01PM (EDT)

In the second White House health scare in little more than a week, doctors Wednesday night implanted a sophisticated pacemaker in President Bush's brain. The device, known as an implantable cranial defibrillator, or ICD, continuously monitors and records the president's brain waves. When Mr. Bush's brain activity becomes dangerously slow for a chief executive, the device delivers a mild electric shock, jolting the president back to a relatively active mental state.

"I feel good," the president told reporters several hours after the operation. Bush then twitched noticeably. "I mean, I feel well," he said.

Doctors say the implant is performing flawlessly, although they're trying to limit the number of shocks Bush receives to fewer than 100 a day. The surgery came barely a week after Vice President Dick Cheney was fitted with a device to regulate his irregular heartbeat.

The White House portrayed last night's medical procedure as an "insurance policy" against further problems for the president. At a news conference at George Washington University Hospital, where the operation was performed, doctors downplayed the seriousness of Bush's condition. The periodic electric jolts from the implant, physicians say, will have minimal effect on the president.

"His hair is not going to stand on end," said chief surgeon Dr. Alan J. Thayer. "Well, maybe a little."

The president, looking tired but fit after his operation, said that the device will help him function better as a world leader.

"The American people need to know that their president is equipped to handle a trouble spot like Slovenia," Mr. Bush said. "Serbia, I mean Serbia," he added, his head jerking violently.

Bush has an extensive medical history of moderately impaired thinking and reasoning, dating back to the 1970s. Doctors have long noted that the president's thoughts easily become confused, and that his public pronouncements often deteriorate into a tangle of mispronunciations, faulty logic and bad grammar. Although Bush's condition wasn't serious enough to prevent him from running for president, or from winning the state of Florida, doctors say his condition has deteriorated significantly in recent months. The president's brain wave activity dipped dangerously low during his recent trip to Europe, and stopped altogether at one point during a meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader was unaware of any change in Mr. Bush's condition, officials say.

Yesterday, the president's doctors subjected him to a battery of mental tests to assess his risk of developing a potentially fatal "zero brain wave" pattern. Once the risk was confirmed, surgeons decided to implant the electronic device, which acts both as a pacemaker and a defibrillator. The pacemaker component is programmed to speed up the president's thinking when it becomes abnormally slow. The defibrillator can shock his brain back to a normal state if Bush's thoughts become "too fast," although doctors say that the chances of that happening are remote.

The device that doctors sutured to the base of the president's cerebellum is known as a Medtronic Gem IV DR model. (There were some problems with an earlier model, which had to be recalled by the manufacturer.) Such devices, once the stuff of science fiction, have become an increasingly common tool in modern neurology. Hundreds of prominent Americans have been fitted with so-called mental pacemakers in recent years, including actor Adam Sandler, TV personality Mary Hart, Yankees owner George Steinbrenner, singer Britney Spears, Rep. Gary Condit, D-Calif., former vice president Dan Quayle, and the entire board of directors of the now-defunct Pets.com. Some of those who wear a mental pacemaker expressed hope that the president's condition would raise public awareness about their circumstance.

"This may turn out to be a blessing in the skies for all of us," said talk show host Maury Povich, who was fitted with one of the first Medtronic devices four years ago. Mr. Povich trembled violently from head to toe before adding, "I mean disguise, disguise, for God's sake, turn it off."

Bush has been advised to avoid deep thoughts for a few days to give the device a chance to settle in place. Doctors say the president so far has cooperated fully with the recommendation. Bush has also been told to alternate holding his cell phone against his right and left ear so the implant receives equal doses of radiation from each side. And the president will have to run at full speed whenever passing through White House metal detectors.

Several congressional leaders privately expressed concern about the president's medical procedure, coming barely a week after Cheney was fitted with a device to regulate his irregular heartbeat.

But Bush dismissed the worries, stating that the Bush-Cheney team is "more fit than ever" to lead the country.

"You'll find no healthier duo than Dick Cheney and I," Bush said. The president hesitated, as if waiting for a signal, and when none came, broke into a toothy grin.

By Tom Mcnichol

Tom McNichol is a San Francisco writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, and on public radio's "Marketplace" and "All Things Considered." He is a contributing editor for Wired magazine.

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