Murkowski condition a mystery to aides

Posted: Sunday, April 13, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) -- While Gov. Frank Murkowski was undergoing a medical procedure in Anchorage to open a blocked coronary artery, most in his Juneau office were unaware of the seriousness of the condition, said his press secretary.

Prior to the 20-minute procedure, only chief of staff Jim Clark was informed that a cardiologist was about to perform angioplasty on the governor to clear an artery that was between 95 and 98 percent blocked, said press secretary John Manly.

''At the time he went up there, we didn't know he was going to have that procedure,'' Manly said, defending the administration's handling of the event.

The administration had issued a statement Wednesday saying the 70-year-old governor was flying to Providence Alaska Medical Center for routine tests after complaining of being dehydrated.

Manly said it was not clear then what the problem was. It was tests in Anchorage that showed the blockage in his artery.

Manly was not informed of the surgery until 10:30 p.m. Wednesday night after having sent out a public statement mentioning the routine tests.

''Maybe routine is not the right word,'' Manly said, adding that electocardiograms in Juneau and one in Anchorage found nothing. ''Clearly, if your vein becomes 100 percent blocked, that could be a problem.''

Angioplasty is a fairly common procedure that involves inserting a catheter into an artery to compresses the plaque followed by a mesh stent to keep the artery open.

Dr. George Rhyneer told reporters afterwards that everything went well, but the procedure has risks such as heart attacks and strokes. And left untreated, the blocked artery could have caused a heart attack, Rhyneer said.

Murkowski left the hospital and returned to Juneau on Friday, telling reporters that he felt fine and was anxious to return to work.

''Doctors' orders are to get back to work, and get some exercise regularly. And I am ready to do both,'' Murkowski said.

Murkowski said he plans to exercise regularly and that, though he is a night owl, he will begin going to bed earlier. The governor has a treadmill, a rowing machine and a ski machine, which he doesn't like, a statement said.

The governor went to Bartlett Regional Hospital on Wednesday after complaining of lightheadedness following a flight from Fairbanks the day before. He assumed it was dehydration caused by air travel.

Doctors in Juneau thought the symptoms could be a sign of something serious, such as a heart problem, and ordered a flight to Anchorage, Rhyneer told reporters.

Clark, Murkowski's chief of staff, issued a statement that night saying the governor was going up for routine medical tests after becoming dehydrated.

''The doctors here (in Juneau) did not find anything wrong, and have referred him to Providence Hospital in Anchorage, just to be safe,'' Clark said then.

The next morning, administration officials announced the angioplasty had been successfully performed.

Rhyneer started the procedure at about 8 p.m. and Murkowski's wife, Nancy, said when she left the hospital later that night the governor was eating a turkey sandwich and feeling fine.

''I'm very, very pleased it turned out to be what it was and the blood's flowing normally and there's no restrictions and they say you will work harder and better than ever, because whatever you had was a constriction and now it's gone,'' Murkowski said Friday.

Murkowski has no history of heart disease, but has been on cholesterol-lowering drugs for about a year, his wife said.

He likely will have to take medication to prevent a recurrence, Rhyneer told reporters Thursday. He will also be advised to restrict his physical activity for about a month.

The governor also plans to continue a low-carbohydrate diet, made famous by its promoter Dr. Robert Atkins. He went on the diet in March as part of a Lent commitment and has shed 12 pounds.

''The Atkins diet, they told me I could take it or leave it, but I am going to hang on to it until Easter anyway,'' Murkowski said.

Manly said the administration informed the public about what they knew at the time of the governor's flight and he didn't see any problem with the choices they made at the time.

''I suppose it would have looked a little strange for us to say he went up for some routine tests and report something else (later). But I think you have to distinguish between reporting what we know and speculating on what we don't know,'' Manly said.

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