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Chiles' health an issue for years

Lawton Chiles' daughter Rhea MacKinnon leans against him with her new baby boy in this 1992 photo as husband Alex and mother Rhea Chiles look on. [Times file photo: Jim Damaske]


© St. Petersburg Times, published December 13, 1998

Ten days before Gov. Lawton Chiles died, child-health advocates honored him at a banquet in Orlando, a farewell for the man who had worked hard for their cause.

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But afterward, Chiles' own health was the topic of conversation, said Ann Ashcraft, president of the Florida Association of Healthy Start Coalitions.

"He looked tired," she recalled after hearing about Chiles' death Saturday of an apparent heart attack. "We talked about the fact that he looked so tired. . . . Of course we didn't foresee anything like this."

She was surprised to hear he was 68. At the banquet, he had looked even older.

Chiles' physical and mental health has been a topic of conversation, and sometimes a political issue, for nearly two decades -- which was ironic, considering he originally gained fame with the physically demanding stunt of walking the length of the state to win his U.S. Senate seat in 1970.

Two of three Americans die of heart disease, said Dr. Michael McIvor of the Heart Institute of St. Petersburg. Half of those who die of heart attacks get no warning, he said.

But Chiles knew he was at risk. His father, Lawton Sr., died from heart disease, as did his sister.

Chiles was diagnosed with hypertension in 1980. As part of his treatment, he went on a salt-free diet. But without salt, he lost his taste for food.

His weight fell nearly 20 pounds, sparking rumors that his health was failing. Chiles felt compelled to protest, "I feel fine."

Then, in 1985, he underwent quadruple bypass surgery. Afterward, on his doctor's orders, he began walking several miles a day and drinking a little wine.

"You have to take the bitter with the sweet," he told reporters with a smile.

In 1988, bitter and frustrated with politics, he announced he was retiring from the Senate. He said he had lost faith that he could make a difference.

Then, two years later, a revitalized Chiles stood on the steps of Florida's Old Capitol and told reporters he was running for governor.

He said doctors told him he had the heart of an active 40-year-old. Chiles also acknowledged getting treated for depression, taking what he called "the good miracle medicine Prozac."

Political opponents said that, at 60, Chiles was not healthy enough to run Florida. One suggested Prozac might make Chiles suicidal. However, Chiles said he suffered no side effects, and the voters believed he was up to the job. He had a history of colitis, and in 1991 had a series of tests in connection with a narrowing of his large intestine.

But a far more serious ailment hit in 1995, when he suffered what at first appeared to be a stroke. He was vomiting, his speech was slurred and his coordination was off.

After running tests, doctors diagnosed him with a "transient ischemic attack," or TIA, sometimes called a ministroke. The basilar artery that leads to the brain stem had been deprived of blood temporarily. Doctors said he showed no signs of permanent damage.

Chiles was found dead next to an exercise bike in the Governor's Mansion Saturday. Exercise could have raised his blood pressure sufficiently to cause a heart attack, said McIvor, the St. Petersburg doctor.
-- Times staff researcher Barbara Oliver contributed to this story.


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