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Stroke-like episode puts Chiles in hospital

Gov. Lawton Chiles was hospitalized early Wednesday after suffering nausea, slurred speech and disorientation, a condition that increases his risk of a stroke.

The 65-year-old chief executive was resting at Tallahassee Memorial Regional Medical Center on Wednesday night after treatment and tests to determine what caused the decreased blood flow to his brain.

His doctors said he would be hospitalized for three to five days while they tried to determine what caused the transient ischemic attack (TIA) that temporarily restricted the flow of blood to his brain.

Doctors and his top aides said he is able to carry out his duties.

"He's awake, lucid, has a clear thought process and normal language function," said Dr. Charles G. Maitland, a specialist in neurology and ophthalmology.

Chiles awoke about 4:20 a.m. Wednesday and felt a little unsteady on his feet, said Dr. Karl Hempel, Chiles' personal physician. The governor's wife, Rhea, noticed his speech was slurred and called Hempel, who met them at the hospital.

The doctors said it was too early to say whether the governor suffered a stroke, but that if permanent damage resulted it would be classified as one. For now, they knew of no permanent damage or paralysis.

"As a rule, TIAs are regarded as a potential harbinger of future events," said Maitland, who said the accepted figure is a 25 to 30 percent risk of a stroke within five years. "That clearly is modified by using appropriate medications, control of blood pressure and the usual things we do."

Chiles' episode may have been brought on by an active weekend of fishing in the hot sun without adequate fluids, Hempel said.

He said there was no direct relationship between Wednesday's symptoms and Chiles' quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1985, although he noted both conditions are caused by arteriosclerosis. Since then, Chiles has observed a low-cholesterol diet, exercised regularly and taken his medication.

"He's really been a real good patient," Hempel said, adding that he now will probably watch his diet even more closely. Hempel said Chiles' blood pressure was 190/110 Wednesday morning, higher than it should have been for a patient who was already taking Cardizem, a drug designed to control his blood pressure.

Chiles, an avid sportsman, quit the U.S. Senate abruptly in 1988, citing severe depression he called "the blacks." Even so, his health never became much of an issue when he came out of retirement in 1990 to run successfully for governor. He allowed reporters to see, but not copy his medical records in 1990, but refused to release details last year when he ran against Jeb Bush, who was 25 years younger than he.

Chiles' hospitalization immediately cast attention on Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, the former congressman from Ocala who rousted Chiles from retirement and urged him to run in 1990. MacKay, who has been second in command since 1991 and harbors his own ambitions to be governor, said he has no doubts about Chiles' ability to completely recover and govern.

"Lawton Chiles is an incredibly tough character," said MacKay, who stood in for the governor at a ceremony commemorating a Tallahassee greenway, held under the morning shade of a live oak grove at Maclay Gardens State Park. "If you had worked with him as closely as I have you'd realize that there'd been things over the past four years that have been much more threatening than this. I feel very good about what I know of his situation."

Administration officials vigorously denied the suggestion that Chiles had a stroke, or a mild stroke, or that his condition was one that was likely to lead to one. They did their best to banish the word from any discussion.

"No, it is not a stroke, and it would be best if you got that directly from the physicians," MacKay said testily. "It's a temporary situation that occurred. He realized that he was suffering some weakness and he and the first lady went to the hospital just like any other citizen."

Chiles and his wife, Rhea, were taken to the hospital in the governor's car by Chris Hirst, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement agent who was on duty at the mansion. Dr. Hempel said Chiles, who never lost consciousness, greeted him and asked how he was doing.

"He was not joking," Hempel said. "He was telling me what happened."

Late Wednesday aides said Chiles' nausea had stabilized with medication and he was being given Heprin, an anti-coagulant. He also was being given a magnetic resonance arteriography test that will offer doctors a detailed look at the blood flow to his brain. The results will be read by a radiologist and neurologist and in consultation with the family, doctors will develop a treatment plan.

"He's very upbeat and very relaxed," said communications director Ron Sachs after visiting Chiles in his hospital room.

Shortly after 9 p.m. Wednesday, Sachs said the governor was resting comfortably and smiling. He said Chiles' speech is normal, that he is able to walk and appears to have no lingering effects. Sachs said the governor successfully completed a series of tests to assess his hand-eye coordination.

"He exceeded his abilities from early in the day, and also did better than many members of the staff could do," Sachs said.

Chiles, a native of Lakeland who won his first political race in 1959, won a U.S. Senate seat in 1970 against long odds. He pioneered a hike across the state that has since become a political staple of little-known underdogs, and earned the nickname Walkin' Lawton during that political campaign.

He underwent quadruple heart bypass surgery in 1985, at age 55, and seemed to have recovered.

But frustrated with Congress, Chiles surprised nearly everyone by quitting his seat in 1988. His departure, ironically, brought MacKay into the race, and the Democratic nominee lost the closest election in history in a bitter battle against Connie Mack.

Chiles at times has looked tired and washed out and frequently appears uninterested in the day-to-day duties of governing. He has often been frustrated at the political tide that brought Republicans to power in the state capital and thwarted his own priorities.

Chiles will be able to govern from the hospital, said chief of staff Tom Herndon.

"The governor is not incapacitated," Herndon said. "This hasn't shut down government."

Herndon plans to leave his post as Chiles' top aide on Aug. 11, but said it is possible that Chiles' health could affect his departure.

"We just don't know yet," Herndon said.

Also on the calendar is a special session Chiles has promised to call on health care. That still was up in the air but MacKay said he didn't see why Chiles' hospitalization should affect the timing.