Everyone second-guesses doctor when president is sick But Bush's physician enjoys the attention

January 09, 1992|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- If there's anyone subject to as much second-guessing as the president himself, it might be the president's physician, Dr. Burton J. Lee III, who yesterday found himself once again under the microscope of his peers around the country.

In the hours shortly after Mr. Bush vomited and slumped in his chair during a Japanese state dinner in Tokyo, at least one physician was already questioning -- before a national television audience -- why Dr. Lee hadn't hospitalized the president for overnight observation.

But by yesterday afternoon, most of the media-appointed experts had come around to the same conclusion as Dr. Lee, 61, who had diagnosed a case of gastroenteritis, commonly called stomach flu, and simply ordered the president to bed.

By now, Dr. Lee must be used to such treatment, and if anything, observers say, he seems to revel in the extra attention. Not that the attention is always flattering, even when it isn't second-guessing.

Dr. Lee's most celebrated moment may have been at last April's White House Correspondents' Association dinner, when, dressed in a tux, he stretched his arms around the legs of a woman standing nearby and hauled her onto the table.

"Do I know you?" asked the woman, a reporter for the Washington Post.

"You do now," a jovial Dr. Lee reportedly answered.

He has also reportedly drawn a frown or two around the White House with his occasional off-the-script remarks, such as the times he spoke of differences with then-Chief of Staff John H. Sununu.

But most of the attention during the past year has concerned his treatment of Mr. Bush.

The job began trivially in 1989 when he treated presidential dog Millie for an infection but then accelerated rapidly last May when the president was hospitalized for an irregular heartbeat.

The culprit turned out to be Graves' disease, a thyroid ailment that had earlier stricken first lady Barbara Bush. That stirred some second-guessing of Dr. Lee, if only because he had declared the president to be in outstanding health only a month earlier.

But medical case histories are loaded with instances of patients suddenly suffering problems only days after thorough examinations. Besides, Dr. Lee's examination had been aided by eight specialists. That's the way he always prefers it, he told People magazine at the time. "Instead of me making decisions," he said, "I let them be made by the guys I consider to be the experts."

But Dr. Lee probably didn't help himself by also telling the magazine, in an article printed the week before Mr. Bush fell ill, that he'd "spotted Barbara Bush's thyroid problem the first day I was on the job."

But no one has ever second-guessed his credentials. Before taking the White House job, he'd been a lymph cancer specialist at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Research Center in New York City. He has also been a professor at the Cornell University medical school.

Dr. Lee met Mr. Bush through mutual friends in the 1950s. Like the president, he comes from a patrician background and earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University. His medical schooling was at Columbia University. Also like the president, Dr. Lee stays active with such hobbies as golf, rowing and squash.

That may explain why he has always been sympathetic to Mr. Bush's wishes to get back on a golf course or boat as soon as possible.

But Dr. Lee insists that it is he, not Mr. Bush, who makes such decisions. He told People magazine, ". . . you can't be concerned that [the president] is the most powerful person in the Western world. . . . You have to do what you have to do."

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