By LYNN BREZOSKY
CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – The 78-year-old lawyer wounded by Vice President Dick Cheney in a hunting accident suffered a mild heart attack Tuesday after a shotgun pellet in his chest traveled to his heart, hospital officials said.
Harry Whittington was immediately moved back to an intensive care unit and will be watched for a week to make sure more pellets do not move to other vital organs. He was reported in stable condition.
Whittington suffered a “silent heart attack” _ an irregular heartbeat, but without the classic heart-attack symptoms of pain and pressure, according to doctors at Christus Spohn Hospital Corpus Christi-Memorial.
The doctors said they decided to treat the situation conservatively and leave the pellet alone rather than operate to remove it. They said they are extremely optimistic Whittington will recover and live a healthy life with the pellet left in place.
Asked whether the pellet could move farther into his heart and become fatal, hospital officials said that was a hypothetical question they could not answer.
Hospital officials said they were not concerned about the six to 200 other pieces of birdshot that might still be lodged in Whittington's body. Cheney was using 7 1/2 shot from a 28-gauge shotgun. Shotgun pellets are typically made of steel or lead; the pellets in 7 1/2 shot are just under a tenth of an inch in diameter.
Cheney watched the news conference where doctors described Whittington's complications. Then the vice president called him, wished him well and asked if there was anything that he needed.
“The vice president said that he stood ready to assist. Mr. Whittington's spirits were good, but obviously his situation deserves the careful monitoring that his doctors are providing,” the vice president's office said in a statement.
Cheney, an experienced hunter, has not spoken publicly about the accident, which took place Saturday night while the vice president was aiming for a quail. Critics of the Bush administration called for more answers from the Cheney himself.
The furor over the accident and the White House delay in making it public are “part of the secretive nature of this administration,” said Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. “I think it's time the American people heard from the vice president.”
Hospital officials said they knew that Whittington had some birdshot near his heart and that there was a chance it could move closer since scar tissue had not had time to harden and hold the pellet in place.
After Whittington developed an irregular heartbeat, doctors performed a cardiac catheterization, in which a thin, flexible tube is inserted into the heart, to diagnose his condition, said Peter Banko, the administrator at the hospital.
The shot was either touching or embedded in the heart muscle near the top chambers, called the atria, officials said. Two things resulted:
_It caused inflammation that pushed on the heart in a way to temporarily block blood flow, what the doctors called a “silent heart attack.” This is not a traditional heart attack where an artery is blocked. They said Whittington's arteries, in fact, were healthy.
_It irritated the atria, caused an irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, which is not immediately life-threatening. But it must be treated because it can spur blood clots to form. Most cases can be corrected with medication.
White House physicians helped advise on the course of treatment, hospital officials said.
Texas officials said the shooting was an accident and no charges were brought against the vice president.
A Texas Parks and Wildlife Department report issued Monday said Whittington was retrieving a downed bird and stepped out of the hunting line he was sharing with Cheney. “Another covey was flushed and Cheney swung on a bird and fired, striking Whittington in the face, neck and chest at approximately 30 yards,” the report said.