The first sitting president to suffer a heart attack, Dwight. D. Eisenhower was hundreds of miles from the White House when it happened. Far removed from the stresses of his job – at least geographically – the World War II five-star general known as Ike was on vacation with wife Mamie in her hometown of Denver when he was stricken in September 1955.
"One morning at 2 o'clock I had a pain," Eisenhower recalled in 1964. "The doctors came and gave me something in the arm. I was soon under an oxygen tent. I felt rather amused that this could be happening to me."
In its brief existence, the Fitzsimons Army Hospital already had been tied to history because of Pearl Harbor: Shortly after opening in 1941, its beds were filled with soldiers wounded in the attack. With Eisenhower in urgent need of care, the hospital admitted the highest-ranking patient in the country – and began a chapter in the building's history that remains vivid today.
The eighth floor of Building 500 on the Anschutz Medical Campus hadn't been given any special treatment after the president's seven-week stay. It remained an actively used area of the hospital until its closure in 1996. After the building became home to the University of Colorado Hospital, a 2003 restoration project re-created what was, in effect, the first coronary care unit in the country.
The suite of rooms – Ike's hospital room and bathroom, an adjoining room where Secret Service agents kept watch, and a medical work space – is supported by people including Rita Alexander, the hospital's manager of volunteer services, and volunteer Jim Dolbier, the head docent who also served at Fitzsimons in the '70s and '80s as a member of the Army Medical Service Corps. He leads tours of the space, providing glimpses of America's mid-century lifestyle and décor,
and spotlighting the profound advancements made in cardiac care over the past few decades.
"People are taken by the austerity of that room," Dolbier said of the 20-by-10-foot patient room. "It's very plain – there was nothing fancy about it. He was a very fancy guest, but it was still a military hospital."
The twin-size bed seems unusually narrow, at least by today's hospital standards. Next to it rests a wheelchair made of wood and cane – it already was old-fashioned in 1955, but it's the kind Eisenhower requested. On a dresser, a portable record player sits next to a vinyl LP: Jackie Gleason's "Lonesome Echo," an album of soothing sounds aimed at fostering relaxation. Doctors made TV, radio, newspapers and phone calls off limits to Ike while he recovered.
Because the Secret Service kept notes on every detail of the president's stay, including what music he listened to and when, the restoration crew had a helpful blueprint for filling in details. None of the furnishings are from Eisenhower's stay, but archival photos and old press clippings aided in locating appropriate substitutes.
During the president's recovery, his administration downplayed the seriousness of the illness, not wanting to telegraph national instability during the Cold War. Eisenhower never lost consciousness when he fell ill, and he retained the presidential authority throughout his recovery. But the episode did spur Congress into revisiting the laws governing succession of presidential power; they came into play eight years later after the assassination of President Kennedy. Ike himself dealt with five more heart-related complications before dying in 1969.
"It's a piece of history right in your backyard," Alexander said of the Eisenhower Suite. "We have limited funds to keep us afloat. We just want to keep it alive."
The hospital still accepts donations of items from the time period of Eisenhower's stay, tours are given on Wednesday mornings, and special tours may be arranged. For details, call Vicki Mackie at 720-848-4071 or Jim Dolbier at 303-752-2706.