Expect George H. W. Bush to Recover from His Neck Injury — and Credit His Inner Strength

(Tom Pennington/Getty)

It is impossible to quantify the extent to which courage impacts healing. But time and again throughout my career as a physician I have become convinced that the life force and refusal to give up, the “rage against the dying of the light,” as Dylan Thomas put it, is crucial to overcoming illness. In my book The Inner PulseI described a patient with a muscle-wasting disease who rose out of a wheelchair for the first time in many months to confront a man who owed him millions.

Mind over matter is a major factor in the world of healing. This is why I am confident that President George H. W. Bush will recover from his latest blow, a fall that fractured the second vertebrae in his neck.

Don’t get me wrong: When it comes to the spine, luck plays an important role, too. I heard from President Bush’s spokesperson, Jim McGrath, who said he had no concussion, that he hit his neck, and that he was never unconscious or disoriented. “He is as tough as they come,” McGrath added. McGrath said that the “injury he sustained neither impinged on his spine nor resulted in any neurological deficits.”

The precious spinal cord is enclosed in a cage of bone, seven vertebrae. When the second one is fractured, surgery is often considered, or a confinement for several weeks in a halo (a metal cage of rods and screws). The healing rate with the halo is over 90 percent, but it is rarely used in someone as old as President Bush. Instead, he will be fitted with a hard neck brace, and will be followed carefully for several weeks with repeated X-rays.

President Bush has had a few health scares over the past few years, including a hospitalization of several months for a prolonged bout of bronchitis. The current neck brace will make it more difficult to manage secretions and to stay mobile, so his health-care team will be on the lookout for repeated infections as well as blood clots in the legs.

Jim McGrath says that President Bush will be home from the hospital in a few short days and then the healing can begin. Inner strength will play a significant role, as it always has for a man who survived and overcame a plane crash over the Pacific in World War II as well as several political defeats, including his reelection campaign for president. He has successfully parachuted from helicopters as recently as his 90th birthday.

Perhaps the most important prognostic indicator for the current neck fracture came from his son, the 43rd president, who praised the care his father received at Maine Medical Center in Portland and said he is on the road to recovery. Freddy Ford, President Bush 43’s senior spokesperson, told me that 43 spoke with 41 “and said he sounded strong.”

Marc Siegel is a professor of medicine and the medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He is also a Fox News medical correspondent.

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