American Presidents have always been subjected to pressures that tax the body to its limits—and sometimes beyond. And so, when Gerald Ford abruptly ascended to the White House, the nation—and indeed the world—almost automatically became immensely interested in the state of his health.
Not to worry. So far, says Rear Admiral William Lukash, 43, the President’s personal physician, all Ford has to worry about is losing five pounds by football season. That would bring the 6’1″ President down to 195 pounds—exactly what he weighed when he was star center for the University of Michigan in 1934.
Whether the President’s medical problems remain of that relatively minor magnitude may depend on the skills of the new First Family doctor. Although a fellow University of Michigan alumnus (Class of ’56), Lukash did not meet his No. 1 patient until Ford was named Vice-President. Still, Detroit-born Lukash has had ample experience in the White House. He was chairman of Bethesda Naval Hospital’s gastroenterology department—a post he still holds—when he was hand-picked by Lyndon Johnson’s doctor, Admiral George Burkley, to be assistant White House physician in 1967.
Lukash and his staff of two doctors and two nurses provide medical services to all White House personnel, including Secret Service agents. But his foremost responsibility, Dr. Lukash hastily points out, is “the health and comfort of the First Family.” Accordingly, the White House is prepared for any emergency—electrocardiograph and resuscitation equipment is always at the ready, and ambulances stand by round the clock. When traveling, Lukash, who accompanied Richard Nixon on his trips to China and the Mideast, takes along a surgical team “because we often have no idea what facilities—if any—are available.”
The best presidential health insurance, Lukash believes, is Ford himself. To strengthen his knees, both of which were injured during his football days, the President exercises daily with weights, bicycle or stationary Exercycle. He also golfs, skis, and plans to take up tennis. Lukash would like to see a pool reinstalled in the White House—the first was covered over five years ago to make a pressroom—so that Ford can resume his twice-daily swim. “But I guess it’s difficult to consider building a pool right now,” muses the doctor, “with all the fiscal restraint he hopes the country will follow.”
Perhaps most important to Lukash is President Ford’s mental attitude. Says Lukash: “Fortunately, he has an ability to relax. It’s just his makeup, his personality. What you see is what you get. When he goes home he just plunks down, visits with the family, leaves every problem at the office.” Nor will Ford allow anything to disturb his sleep: “He has that innate ability to sleep immediately, and requires only five to six hours of sleep a night. He thrives on this.”
Lukash’s own schedule is highly energetic. Up at 5 a.m. and ready to leave his Potomac, Md. home by 6:30, Lukash generally puts in a 12-hour day, but there is still time for tennis and golf with wife Gwendolyn, a native of Ford’s hometown Grand Rapids, and their 16-year-old son Daniel. A Little League baseball and basketball coach for the past seven years, Lukash helped his team of budding basketballers walk away with the Rockville, Md. city championship last year.
At the White House, Lukash is equally determined to keep the First Family in winning trim. “Mrs. Ford has lost some weight over the last year and is doing fine,” he says. “And Susan (the Fords’ only daughter) is watching her calories and is slimming down very nicely.” As for the President: “He’s a meat and potatoes man and he loves ice cream, and those are the things we’ll cut down. I think this is a commonsense diet and he has been very cooperative. He doesn’t gripe.” Maybe not, but recently the President turned to a Secret Service man and sighed: “Jeez, I’m hungry.”