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When Public Figures Get Sick

by Tom Regan
May 22, 2008

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Tom Regan

The first time the illness of a public figure really made an impact on the American public happened on the evening of Sept. 24, 1955. That was the day that President Dwight Eisenhower had a heart attack. Unlike previous presidents who had been struck ill — Woodrow Wilson in 1919 for instance — Eisenhower released detailed information about his condition to the public (although it was a very controlled release).

By today's standards (which we'll discuss below), not much came to light. But at the time, it stunned people to learn that their president was so sick, and many Americans wanted to know why it had happened. Suddenly Americans were learning that the food that you eat — and the cigarettes you smoke — could make you very sick indeed.

These days, with 24/7 media, the illness of a public figure quickly becomes a major story — for instance, the news this week that Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) has a brain tumor. Another recent example is Elizabeth Edwards' battle with breast cancer.

Often these illness can lead to a great deal more information about a particular illness making its way into the public mind share. Past examples include; the late-Mickey Mantle's liver replacement and what it did for raising awareness of organ donation; "Magic" Johnson's battle with HIV/AIDS reduced the stigma associated with the disease; and the late President Reagan's battle with Alzheimer's made more people aware of it's debilitating effects.

Great good can come out of this otherwise tragic situation. But sometimes so many conflicting stories about these illnesses can sometimes muddy the situation, rather than clarify it. For instance, the debate in the media this week about how long people live after getting the kind of brain tumor inflicting Kennedy. Cable news networks eagerly trot out medical experts to declare a disease is either this or that. Few discuss the actual nuances of the situation.

On today's show we'll talk to Dr. Barron H. Lerner, a historian and professor of medicine and public health at Columbia University Medical Center, whose recent book When Illness Goes Public: Celebrity Patients and How We Look at Medicine, examined this very issue. Elizabeth Edwards will join us, too. What questions do you have for them?

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