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 the intensive care unit and will be watched for a week to make sure more of the metal pellets do not reach other vital organs. He was reported in stable condition.
Whittington suffered a "silent heart attack" - obstructed blood flow, 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 leave the pellet alone rather than operate to remove it. They said they are optimistic Whittington will recover and live a healthy life with the pellet in him.
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.
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.
Cheney, an experienced hunter, has not spoken publicly about the accident, which took place Saturday night. Critics of the Bush administration called for more answers from Cheney himself.
Whittington has said through hospital officials that he does not want to comment on the shooting.
The White House has been grappling with questions and criticism about why it waited the better part of a day to disclose that Cheney had accidentally wounded a fellow hunter.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada said the lack of immediate release of information about Cheney's hunting accident is "part of the secretive nature of this administration."
"I think it's time the American people heard from the vice president," Reid said.
Before hospital officials announced details of Whittington's condition, the hunting accident had produced numerous jokes on late-night television.
"I think Cheney is starting to lose it," Jay Leno said on the Tonight Show. "After he shot the guy he screamed, "Anyone else want to call domestic wiretapping illegal?' "
On Tuesday morning, the White House spokesman briefly joined in the merriment, joking that the orange school colors of the visiting University of Texas championship football team should not be mistaken for hunters' safety gear.
"The orange that they're wearing is not because they're concerned that the vice president may be there," press secretary Scott McClellan said. "That's why I'm wearing it."
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.
Dr. Reynaldo Mulingtapang, an assistant professor in the cardiology department of the University of South Florida College of Medicine and director of the interventional cardiology program at USF and Tampa General Hospital, said the pellets can move through muscle tissue, but also said "people think the shot can travel through the blood vessels, but that's wrong."
Over time the pellets usually are encapsulated in scar tissue, Mulingtapang said. Depending on the degree and location of scar formation, scarring around the pellets could cause pericarditis, an inflammation of the sac around the heart that can lead to sudden heart failure, he said.
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, causing 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.
"It's a straightforward accident. The facts are not going to change," said Tom Harvey, a spokesman for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. "There's not going to be criminal wrongdoing."
However, Carlos Valdez, the district attorney in Kleberg County, said that could change should Whittington die from his injuries.
A fatality would require a new report from the local sheriff and, most likely, a grand jury investigation, he said.
Times staff writer Colette Bancroft contributed to this report, which includes information from the Associated Press, New York Times and Knight Ridder news service.