Treating VIPatients: How GW Hospital handles their most prominent patients

When U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson was rushed to GW hospital and underwent brain surgery in mid-December, the hospital had to deal with another “VIP patient.”

When politicians and other celebrities check into the hospital, the security and public relations staffs both for the hospital and for the patient are often called in to handle the release of medical information to the public.

Dealing with prominent patients can be a hassle for the hospital staff, sometimes requiring them to work overtime to accommodate the patient. But the publicity that comes with treating “VIP patients,” “can really enhance the hospital’s reputation as a provider of high-quality healthcare,” said Richard Becker, the CEO of the GW Hospital, in an e-mail.

Becker said there are many “VIPs” who pass through the hospital doors some with known visits, like Johnson, but others come to GW and it is not known until years later. Because of the Freedom of Information Act, some medical information cannot remain secret forever as a person’s death can warrant the release of medical records to the public.

FBI records recently released under this rule, for example, show that former Chief Justice of the United States William Rehnquist checked himself into the GW Hospital for a month in 1982 to seek treatment for prescription drug dependency. Rehnquist died in September 2003.

Records show that a Capitol Hill physician prescribed Placidyl, a strong sleeping aid, to Rehnquist for about a decade while he was an associate justice of the Supreme Court. Records show that Rehnquist was taking three times the prescribed amount of Placidyl.

In 1986, an FBI agent contacted a hospital doctor, whose name is erased in the file, to obtain medical information about Rehnquist. The doctor released the information only after receiving permission from Rehnquist, in compliance with the District of Columbia Mental Health Act of 1978.

The doctor interviewed said Rehnquist suffered from paranoid delusions when he stopped taking the drug, records show. The doctor said Rehnquist thought he imagined a CIA plot against him and saw the designs on the hospital curtains change shape. At one point Rehnquist went to the hospital lobby to try to escape. Doctors decided to start him on the drug again and wean him off slowly to avoid further withdrawal symptoms, records show.

The doctor interviewed said Rehnquist seemed responsible, respectable and intelligent, and she did not question his moral character, but she did not want to comment on his suitability for the position of chief justice as she had not seen him in several years.

While Rehnquist’s medical information was largely kept private during his lifetime, other well-known patients decide to release their health status while at the hospital.

Heather Bancroft, the communications manager at the hospital, wrote in an e-mail, “In some cases our role is to protect patient privacy and in other cases where a patient authorizes the release of his/her health information, we may work hand-in-hand with the patient’s staff or public relations department to provide physician statements and help them understand their treatment.”

Some politicians and celebrities show their gratitude for their medical treatment by donating money to medical institutions affiliated with the GW Hospital, and are honored with buildings named after them.

Vice President Dick Cheney, a very candid GW Hospital patient, has visited the hospital several times in the past few years for a heart condition.

In 2006 Cheney and his wife Lynne donated $2.7 million to the School of Medicine and Health Science for the creation of a cardiovascular institute in their names.

Larry King, who is also open about his medical history, was treated for a heart attack at the GW Hospital in 1987. The next year he founded the Larry King Cardiac Foundation, which works with four hospitals, including the GW Hospital, to provide funding for treatment for individuals who would otherwise be unable to afford it.

In 1981, President Ronald Reagan was brought to the hospital being shot in a failed assassination attempt. The hospital renamed its trauma center after Reagan in 1991.

Becker said the hospital is delighted to offer medical treatment to the nation’s elite: “We’re proud to be able to serve high-profile patients who have many options and choose to have their care at George Washington University Hospital.”

The Hatchet has disabled comments on our website. Learn more.