JFK, diarrhea, and history | Inquirer Opinion
Looking Back

JFK, diarrhea, and history

/ 12:55 AM January 24, 2014

Reading about Leonard Wood’s brain tumor and how it may have affected the way he ran the Philippines as US governor-general made me wonder about occupants of Malacañang and other seats of power elsewhere in the world in other times.

Martial law babies like myself learned about the supposed wartime exploits of Ferdinand Marcos. We knew him as a mean golfer who was not shy to lift his shirt to proudly display his sculpted abs and pecs. I still remember newspaper reports of his trip to Cancun, Mexico, where the press caught him in trunks and on water skis. So it was quite a surprise for many to hear about Marcos’ many ailments that led to his death in exile in September 1989. Marcos survived the war, assassination attempts, and political intrigue, only to die of organ failure resulting from complications brought about by systemic lupus erythematosus.


Great plagues have devastated nations, but certain men’s ailments have changed the course of history.

I was surprised to read that US President John F. Kennedy had serious medical problems kept from the American public. In his first year in the White House, he was plagued by stomach, colon, prostate and urinary tract ailments that supplemented his well-known back problem which was treated with hot packs and ultrasound treatments. Doctors fed him a medical cocktail that included lomotil, metamucil, paregoric, phenobarbital, testosterone, steroids, painkillers, penicillin, and antibiotics to cover a wide range of disorders including diarrhea, abscesses, UTI and weight loss.


Did JFK’s medical condition affect history in some way? I’m sure it did.

In Christmas 1996, the Los Angeles Times reported that then Philippine President Fidel V. Ramos was recovering from a 75-minute operation in Manila to remove a block in the carotid artery on the right side of his neck. When a president goes under the knife, when a president is sedated, the vice president is on standby. When blood flow to FVR’s brain started to go smoothly, he was able to return to work and complete his term, to the relief (or disappointment?) of then Vice President Joseph Estrada, who was literally a heartbeat from the presidency.

Manuel A. Roxas is just a face on our P100 bill, and few people know that he died of a heart attack at the then Clark Air Base in Angeles, Pampanga. He had barely served two years in office, and was succeeded by Vice President Elpidio Quirino.

Reading about Leonard Wood’s brain tumor and Manuel L. Quezon’s TB made me wonder: What would our history be if Fernando Poe Jr. had won the presidency? FPJ suffered a stroke and died in December 2004, which means another vice president would have settled in Malacañang to finish the remainder of FPJ’s term.

Then we have Ninoy Aquino, who was once hailed by Jovito Salonga as “the greatest president we never had.” What would have happened if Marcos’ illness had moved faster? Would Ninoy have been president? What would have happened if Ninoy had succumbed to his first stroke? What if Marcos had not allowed him to seek medical treatment in the United States? What if Ninoy’s bypass operation did not work? Then there would have been no assassination, and the airport now bearing his name would still be called the Manila International Airport.

Looking at the course of history in the light of the medical records of the great men and women who steered the nation can be a very fascinating subfield in history. The “Philippine Diary Project” webpage provides a sampling of Quezon’s clinical record. On June 20, 1944, the President’s Day unfolded thus:

“10.45 a.m. Amphogel (antacid) one teaspoonful followed by one small glass of milk and cream. 10:50 a.m. Breakfast—1 soft boiled egg. 11:25 a.m. Hypo injection: 1 ampule Neosthenic Fraisse. 11:35 a.m. Transferred to porch. 12:20 p.m. to 12:40 p.m. Sleeping. 1.30 p.m. Lunch. 2.50 p.m. to 3.25 p.m. Sleeping. 3.30 p.m. Elixir Phenobarbital (sedative) 1 teaspoon. 4-4:24 p.m. Sleeping. Patient had an excellent day. He coughed only four times. Perspiration much less. 4:42 p.m. Amphogel 1 teaspoon. Prescription 86654: 2 Teaspoon given after lunch and dinner. 10: p.m. Cafiaspirina (alleviates pain combined with fatigue and tiredness), 1 tablet given. 11:00 p.m. Membutal 3/4 grain.”


On another day we read:

“Prescription for cough given at 2:15 a.m. June 12, 1944. 11.30 p.m. Milk of Magnesium (antacid) 2 tablet. Slept at intervals at times. 2:15 a.m. Cough medicine given. 4:00 a.m. Glass of milk. Had a light sweating. 6:00 a.m. Went back to sleep until 8:00 a.m. [when he was given] Amphogel (antacid) 1 ounce. 9:00 a.m. Vitamin 1 pill. 10:00 a.m. Hypo Injection 1 ampule Neosthenic Fraisse. 1:12 p.m. Lunch. 3:00 p.m. Cafiaspirin 1 tablet. 3:05 p.m. Sodium Bicarbonate (for the management of metabolic acidosis) 2 tablets. 5:15 p.m. Alcohol rub (whole body). 6:00 p.m. Amphogel 1 teaspoon followed by milk and cream. Slept at short intervals from 12:15 p.m. to 1:00 p.m. and from 2:00 p.m. to 2:20 p.m. Spent a fairly good day. Went out to the porch for a short while at 10:45 a.m. but returned to the room because of the wind outside. 9:00 p.m. Prescription 86654 given. 10:00 p.m. Cough mixture.”

Medical records look like useless bits of information, but they can help us understand why certain people acted the way they did and how these actions and decisions gave us the world we have today.

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TAGS: Ambeth R. Ocampo, column, diarrhea, diseases, health, History, John F. Kennedy
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