Last week's headline "Bush chokes on pretzel, faints while watching TV" threw me for a loop. Why in the world, I wondered, would the commander-in-chief's choking and fainting warrant national news coverage? Half way through reading the article I still didn't know.
The prez "quickly recovered and was doing well." His doc said it wasn't likely to happen again. His dogs never moved when their master went down for the count. OK, it was no big deal. So why am I reading about it in the paper?
Something was fishy, and it got fishier as I read on. A pretzel got caught in George W's throat and stimulated a nerve that slowed his heart rate and caused him to faint. Didn't make sense to me. I was under the impression that when you choke and pass out, you don't wake up. What do I know?
Another tidbit that caught me off guard was the doc's claim that Bush's lower-than-normal pulse rate -- thanks to endless hours at the gym -- made him "more prone to fainting" when the pretzel stuck. I thought low blood pressure was a good thing. Just how low is the presidential heart rate? And if he's at risk of fainting when he chokes, why is he alone eating anything? What the hell's going on in the White House? And where's Dick Cheney?
That article raised more questions than it answered and annoyed me to no end. Learning that Bush intended to keep his regular schedule the day after his swoon only made me question again why I needed to know about the ordeal in the first place. It was either a very slow news day or there was more to this black out than the First Family was letting on.
I needed more information so I picked up an afternoon paper. Almost the same article appeared. This one had quotes from the President: "My mother always said, 'When you're eating pretzels, chew before you swallow.' Always listen to your mother, and I hit the deck. Woke up, and there was Barney and Spot showing a lot of concern."
Obviously all was well with Numero Uno, but something else in the story set off my alarm. The medical term for Bush's episode is vasovagal syncope, his doctor told the reporter. That's when the Vagus nerve signals the heart to slow to a rate that can cause a loss of consciousness. It's pretty common, according to the article that quoted a Virginia physician who said, "It's thought that pretty much everybody has one simple faint in their life. We see folks every day that have had a vasovagal reaction."
I've never had a simple faint. And I've got a lower-than-normal blood pressure and pulse, just like the prez. If what they say is true, that makes me "more prone" to vasovagal syncope and more than a little nervous.
The next day's coverage of the choke/faint/tumble gave me a chuckle and answered my primary question. Next to a mug shot of Bush, sporting a raw cheekbone and a fat lip that demanded explanation, the morning paper ran the headline: "Bush's fainting did no harm, physicians say." Apparently none of those docs examined his face. Looked to me like our leader took a punch or two in the puss, but he is the President of the United States and if he says he got so bruised up when he choked, fainted and fell off his couch I'll accept that. How high is that couch anyway? Any chance he hit something on the way down? If only those dogs could talk.
But knowing why Bush's mishap made the news didn't quell my concerns about a probable common faint somewhere in my future. Later that day, when the nurse in the blood mobile said, "You have a low pulse, do you work out?" I answered, "Does that mean I'm prone to vasovagal fainting spells?" It took a second, but she caught on. "You mean like the President? It could happen," she said. "The Vagus nerve runs right up the esophagus, so choking or hard coughing could over-stimulate it and cause you to pass out."
I asked if it ever happened to her. She said no and so did everyone else I asked last week, save two women who each said they fainted once in their lives, but neither was eating, choking or coughing at the time. One was in the shower, the other walking when they wilted. Who knows, could have been Vagus nerve over-stimulation. No one but the nurse had ever heard of vasovagal syncope until it struck the President and made the news.
The third day's print coverage of the Presidential pass out brought reports of the foreign press mocking the leader of the free world and the folks who elected him. One editorial called Bush a man of the people and said, "this is exactly the sort of accident that befalls Homer Simpson, night after night." Another reported "after an exhaustive investigation, the FBI, CIA and Secret Service rejected the possibility that the biscuit in question came from Afghanistan and have certified that it is a genuine American salted pretzel." Next to the story the afternoon paper ran a photo of an artist painting a bruise on the cheek of a museum wax model of the prez holding a bag of pretzels.
In defense of our chief executive, I'd like to point out that he's not the only head of state that has blacked out while in office. Ten years ago his dad had a similar experience. Bush the elder passed out at a state dinner in Tokyo, but not before upchucking on his host's shoes. Could very well have been a vasovagal syncope. That memory might comfort Bush junior and make the ribbing a little easier to swallow. Either way, the press won't have another opportunity to mock our fearless leader. He's following mom's advice; from now on, he'll chew his pretzels before swallowing them. That's a relief.