President Clinton injured his leg walking down steps early Friday morning at professional golfer Greg Norman’s Florida estate and underwent surgery later in the day to repair a torn tendon in his right knee.
“I feel great. They did a terrific job,” Clinton said after two hours of surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in suburban Washington. “I just had an unlucky break.”
Although the injury will leave Clinton in a brace and on crutches for about eight weeks, the president intends to follow through with his plans to travel to Helsinki, Finland, early next week to meet with Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin.
The president, who is expected to stay in the hospital until Sunday, joked with reporters to stop questioning his doctors about whether he should be permitted to travel to Finland. “I want you guys to quit giving my doctors a hard time about going to Helsinki,” Clinton said over a speakerphone from his hospital room.
The president seemed to be in very good spirits. “I’ve had almost no injuries in my life. In 25 years of running and a lot of other athletic activity, I’ve been remarkably free of injury,” Clinton said. “Don’t worry about it. I’ll just spend a little time here and then go back to work.”
The chief surgeon for Clinton’s operation said the president will have to undergo physical therapy for months before he can expect to return to some of his favorite activities--playing golf and jogging--but the prognosis is good.
“He has an excellent chance to regain full motion in his knee,” said Dr. David Adkison.
Clinton heard his knee pop about 1:15 Friday morning when he was walking from the main house to the guest quarters at Norman’s oceanside estate in Hobe Sound, Fla., spokeswoman Mary Ellen Glynn told reporters at a hospital in West Palm Beach.
In the dim light, the president thought he was on the walkway when, in fact, he had one more step to go. He twisted his leg as he misstepped, White House Press Secretary Mike McCurry said.
“Accidents happen to people, but I was very fortunate that Greg Norman, being a better athlete, heard my knee pop and turned around and caught me,” Clinton said.
The president was rushed to a local hospital, where it was determined that he needed surgery.
The Australian professional golfer and the president had planned to play Friday and today, but the injury abruptly interrupted Clinton’s plans. Instead of heading to the golf course--or to a scheduled event at a nearby elementary school, planned to highlight the problem of school overcrowding--Clinton got back aboard Air Force One and headed for Bethesda Naval Hospital.
From the air, Clinton called the school--Lighthouse Elementary in Jupiter, Fla.--and had an animated telephone conversation with some school officials and a pupil.
“Please forgive me for not being there and give me a rain check,” Clinton said.
The president also made it clear that he is determined not to let the injury change his lifestyle.
“I want to be back running soon,” Clinton said. He joked that he hoped his injury might help him win more golf games.
“I saw Greg Norman this morning; I told him my handicap is going up by the minute,” he said.
At the hospital before the surgery, Clinton settled in to his luxurious room and watched the Miami-Clemson NCAA basketball tournament game on television with his wife, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and his chief of staff, Erskine Bowles, McCurry said.
“While the doctors consulted, the president joked around with some staff and others,” McCurry told reporters.
Adkison said Clinton got “a standard operation” but that the tear in his tendon was unusual.
“It tore in a way where there actually still was some of the tendon attached to the bone, which is uncommon, where there was a fairly large amount still attached to the bone,” Adkison said.
The president, who was given a spinal anesthesia, was conscious during the surgery.
“The main thing we don’t want to happen is a fall,” Adkison said of the post-operative phase. “He might re-injure this.”
Adkison said the president likely would be on crutches for eight weeks and wear a brace. It will likely be six months before the president can get back to golf and running and he should not stress the muscle on that leg for three months, the physician added. In the meantime, he will have to undergo physical therapy to ensure that he is able to regain full use of his knee.
After surgery, Clinton was moved into a room where his wife and daughter, Chelsea, were waiting.
“His first words were, ‘Where’s the basketball?’ ” McCurry said, referring to the NCAA tournament on television.
Clinton’s injury was an apparent factor in the decision Friday by Jordan’s King Hussein to postpone a visit to Washington that had been planned for Monday. The timing of the visit already had been disrupted by the killing Thursday of seven Israeli schoolgirls by a Jordanian soldier.
The president still is expected to meet--probably Monday--with Russian Foreign Minister Yevgeny M. Primakov, who is visiting Washington to prepare for the Helsinki summit.
In a bit of a role reversal, Yeltsin sent a telegram to Clinton on Friday expressing his best wishes for Clinton’s recovery, a spokesman for the Russian leader said. Yeltsin--with heart attack, bypass surgery and double pneumonia--was frequently the recipient of such telegrams from Clinton during the past eight months.
In addition, one of Russia’s top physicians offered his country’s medical expertise and assistance to Clinton’s doctors.
“Our specialists are ready to help American traumatic surgeons with consultations in case of necessity,” said Vladimir Okhotinsky, Moscow’s chief trauma surgeon.
* MIDDLE-AGE MALADY: Middle-age brings on more injuries, experts say, but Clinton’s health should aid recovery. A17
* GRAPHIC ON INJURY: A17