The 78-year-old lawyer shot by US Vice President Dick Cheney in a hunting accident suffered a mild heart attack after a shotgun pellet in his chest travelled to his heart, hospital officials said.
Harry Whittington was immediately moved back to the intensive care unit and will be watched for a week to make sure more of the metal pellets do not reach other vital organs. He was reported in stable condition.
Whittington suffered a “silent heart attack” yesterday – obstructed blood flow, but without the classic heart-attack symptoms of pain and pressure, according to doctors at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial in Texas.
The doctors said they decided to treat the situation conservatively and leave the pellet alone rather than operate to remove it. They said they are highly optimistic Whittington will recover and live a healthy life with the pellet in him.
Asked whether the pellet could move farther into his heart and become fatal, hospital officials said that was a hypothetical question they could not answer.
Hospital officials said they were not concerned about the six to 200 other tiny pieces of birdshot that might still be lodged in Whittington’s body.
Cheney watched the news conference where doctors described Whittington’s complications. Then the vice president called him, wished him well and asked if there was anything that 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’s office said in a statement.
Cheney, an experienced hunter, has not spoken publicly about the accident, which took place on Saturday night while the vice president was aiming for a quail. Critics of President George Bush’s administration called for more answers from Cheney himself.
The furore over the accident and the White House delay in making it public are “part of the secretive nature of this administration,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “I think it’s time the American people heard from the vice president.”
After Whittington developed an irregular heartbeat, doctors performed a cardiac catheterization, in which a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the heart, to diagnose his condition, said Peter Banko, the administrator at the hospital.
The shot was either touching or embedded in the heart muscle near the top chambers, called the atria, officials said. Two things resulted:
:: It caused inflammation that pushed on the heart in a way to temporarily block blood flow, what the doctors called a ”silent heart attack.” This is not a traditional heart attack where an artery is blocked. They said Whittington’s arteries, in fact, were healthy.
:: It irritated the atria, caused an irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, which is not immediately life-threatening. But it must be treated because it can spur blood clots to form. Most cases can be corrected with medication.