President John F Kennedy was marred by health problems and chronic back pain throughout his life.
Ultimately, experts say, his multiple failed surgeries and restrictive back brace could have made it impossible for him to survive the bullets that killed him in 1963.
As the youngest candidate ever elected to the Oval Office, Kennedy was often portrayed as a dynamic man full of youthful energy.
However, lower back agony was one of many hidden medical problems, and affected him nearly continually from his undergraduate years at Harvard until the day of his assassination.
He began experiencing the pain during his time at college, supposedly the result of a football injury he sustained in 1937.
Between 1944 and 1957 Kennedy had four spinal surgeries and a number of near-death episodes.
The first two surgeries to remove spongy tissue between his disks did little to improve his condition and resulted in muscle spasms and more pain. The third operation was performed to remedy the effects of the second, and the fourth to clear out infection at the previous operative site.
During that time and into his presidency, Kennedy tried any option he could to reduce the chronic pain so he could function as a politician and maintain his image of a strong and vibrant leader at the top of his game.
Just two years into his first term as President Kennedy was shot twice by Lee Harvey Oswald. Many doctors believe the impact of the first shot, which hit him in the shoulder and exited through his trachea, should have forced JFK to slump forward in his seat.
Instead he remained upright, allowing Oswald to deliver the second fatal blow to the head. Many people believe the reason he did not slump forward is because of the back brace he wore for his back pain.
Now, research by Dr T Glenn Pait and Justin T Dowdy of the Department of Neurological Surgery at the University of Arkansas takes a closer look at the President’s chronic back pain.
Their new analysis reveals that Kennedy experienced much more pain in his short life than was previously known, and offers an in-depth explanation of how his back brace could have ultimately resulted in his death.
Kennedy’s first surgery: How a football injury and the toll of war left him with chronic back pain – but operating made it worse
In 1943 he was ordered to the Pacific theater after being declared fit for physical duty. Just moths after arriving, Kennedy’s boat was hit by a Japanese destroyer in an incident that killed two crew members and stranded he and his shipmates. The event ended his tour of duty and left him a war hero
JFK’s back problems initially prevented wartime enlistment in the armed services in 1940, but his father’s political influence helped JFK obtain a commission in the US Naval Reserve in 1941.
In 1943 he was ordered to the Pacific theater after being declared fit for physical duty. Just months after arriving, Kennedy’s boat was hit by a Japanese destroyer in an incident that killed two crew members and stranded him and his shipmates.
It also marked the beginning of the famous PT-109 episode that saw Kennedy pull a badly wounded crewman to safety by putting the strap of his life jacket in his teeth for five hours as he swam to a nearby island.
The event ultimately ended his Pacific tour of duty and left him a war hero. In November of 1943, he returned home.
The impact of the ship collision and the physical exertion of the rescue exacerbated the future president’s back problems, and less than one year later, JFK underwent the first of four spine surgeries.
On June 23, 1944, doctors removed spongy tissue in Kennedy’s spine between the disks, helping relieve the symptoms of the injured area.
Initially he did well, but eventually started to experience severe muscle spasms.
The surgery was ultimately unsuccessful, in part due to an imaging technique referred to as a myelogram.
At the time of the procedure, one of the agents used to perform a myelography was air, which is a less risky, though ultimately less accurate than other agents that might have been used.
Had the imaging been more precise, the surgery may have been successful and helped Kennedy ward off future back problems.
In 1946, just two years after the failed surgery, Kennedy was elected to the House of Representatives, and his first term in congress was marred by health difficulties.
First brush with death: Young JFK’s long-term gastrointestinal issues turned into kidney disease and he was read his last rites – as back agony persisted
In addition to his back pain, Kennedy dealt with long-term gastrointestinal problems, for which he took corticosteroid tablets.
In 1947, the steroids stopped working, causing a severe adrenal gland crisis during an overseas trip to London.
Steroids cannot be stopped abruptly, and instead have to be tapered off over time to give the adrenal glands time to return to normal secretion patterns.
He became seriously and quickly ill, and was eventually diagnosed with Addison’s disease, which causes the adrenal gland to produce insufficient amounts of the hormone cortisol.
When under stress, that deficiency can result in a life-threatening crisis characterized by low blood pressure.
He was hospitalized overseas, and when he returned stateside he was in critical condition, with many in the family thinking he would die. For the first time, of many, the President was read his last Catholic rites.
The second surgery: How a post-operation infection almost killed him, he was read his rites AGAIN, and was left with bones sticking out of his back
Regardless of his health problems, Kennedy continued his political career, and was elected to the US senate in 1952 after a ‘grueling’ race in which his political advisor Dave Powers stated that he had to travel ‘with crutches, gritting his teeth when he walked’.
‘But then,’ Powers continued, ‘when he came into the room where the crowd was gathered, he was erect and smiling, looking as fit and healthy as the light-heavyweight champion of the world. Then after he finished his speech and answered questions from the floor and shook hands with everyone, we would help him into the car and he would lean back on the seat and close his eyes in pain.’
In 1954, the then-Senator required nearly constant use of crutches, and decided to undergo a lumbosacral fusion operation, which held a high risk of death.