Published February 17, 2006
A birdshot pellet that hit Harry Whittington, the friend Vice President Dick Cheney accidentally shot on Saturday, has migrated to his heart, causing a "minor" heart attack, hospital representatives said on Tuesday outside the hospital where Whittington is being treated.
"He has not had a heart attack in the traditional sense. As I said before, he was asymptomatic," said Corpus Spohn Hospital Memorial administrator Peter Banko.
"He will have a full life the Lord intended to have, and this shouldn't affect him one way or the other," he added.
Dr. David Blanchard, director of emergency services at the hospital, said Whittington, 78, suffered a "silent heart attack," meaning he did not exhibit any signs of a heart attack, the sweating, shoulder pain or crushing chest pain, but an EKG showed that he suffered an atrial fibrillation. The event occurred around 6:30 a.m. CST, the doctor said, and Whittington was immediately moved to the cardiac catheterization lab in the intensive care unit where a blockage in blood flow was discovered.
"The BB basically has lodged in a certain area that has caused inflammatory changes. When that occurs, there is irritability to the heart muscle ... it is basically like an electrical short circuit," Blanchard said, adding that it is "easily treated with medications" and is a nonsurgical condition.
Whittington was accidentally shot by Cheney, an experienced hunter, during a quail hunting trip on Armstrong Ranch in south Texas on Saturday afternoon. Not aware that his hunting partner had returned from retrieving a bird he had shot, Cheney turned right to shoot a covey of quail and sprayed his hunting partner with shotgun pellets instead. Whittington was shot in the face, neck and chest but never lost consciousness, Katharine Armstrong, the owner of the ranch, reported.
Commenting publicly on the incident for the first time Tuesday, the vice president's office issued a statement saying Cheney had called Whittington around 1:30 p.m. EST to check up on him.
"The vice president wished Mr. Whittington well and asked if there was anything he needed. The vice president said that he stood ready to assist. Mr. Whittington's spirits were good, but obviously his situation deserves the careful monitoring that his doctors are providing. The vice president said that his thoughts and prayers are with Mr. Whittington and his family," the statement reads.
Blanchard said that one birdshot pellet is the focus of concern, and other birdshot pellets have not endangered Whittington. Banko said that cardiologists tending to the Austin attorney do not want to perform any surgery on him, particularly as the birdshot has not entered any chambers of the heart or coronary arteries.
"It's not moving and ... the cardiologists do not feel it's going to move. ... If it were in a position where it's going to move they would have gone in and done surgery immediately. It's not in a position where they think it's going to move any further to endanger his health," Banko said, adding that Whittington's heart is as healthy or healthier than that of a much younger man.
Blanchard said the birdshot pellet is a rounded, smooth object, which in itself is good news since it won't pierce the body at a later time. He added that thousands of Americans are walking around with shrapnel in their bodies without any complications, and he said Whittington has shown no signs of developing any infection.
"We are very, very optimistic that with Mr. Whittington's strong heart, his personality, his stamina, the will, that he will do very well, and we're prepared to deal with anything that may develop," Blanchard said, adding that doctors make daily rounds of all patients to check for these types of eventualities.
Blanchard added that doctors were taking a "conservative" approach in treating Whittington and that he and other cardiologists at the hospital had the "concurrence" of the White House medical team.
White House spokesman Scott McClellan did not mention the medical report during his daily briefing, though Blanchard said the White House had been informed around 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. EST. McClellan said later that he was not asked about Whittington's health nor did he volunteer the information. He said he did not think it was his place to reveal the development out of respect for doctor-patient confidentiality.
As reporters scold the White House for skimming on the details, Democrats also called on the vice president to be more forthcoming. Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., urged Cheney to hold a press conference, which he has not done since 2002. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., accused the administration of being the most secretive in "modern history."
"Talk about secrecy, the vice president accidentally shoots someone and keeps that a secret for nearly a day. That man, of course, is now very sick," Reid said.
Cheney's office said that he had been informed around 12:30 p.m. EST that hospital officials were going to hold a 1 p.m. press conference. When the vice president returned from a meeting with Republicans on Capitol Hill, he watched part of the news conference, his office said.
On Monday, the state gave Cheney and Whittington warning citations for breaking Texas hunting law by failing to buy a $7 stamp allowing them to shoot upland game birds. A spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department said warnings are being issued in most cases because the stamp requirement only went into effect five months ago and many hunters weren't aware of it.
The Parks and Wildlife Department report said Whittington was retrieving a downed bird and stepped out of the hunting line he was sharing with Cheney. "Another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards," the report said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.