The 78-year-old lawyer accidentally shot by Vice President Dick Cheney during a weekend hunting trip suffered a minor heart attack Tuesday, a serious development in an incident that had provided fodder for late-night comedians and embarrassed the White House.
Harry Whittington suffered the heart attack when one of the shotgun pellets lodged in his body pressed against his heart and irritated the muscles, officials at Christus Spohn Memorial Hospital said.
Doctors determined Whittington was having a heart attack after detecting an erratic heartbeat. A cardiac catheter was inserted, and his arteries were found to be clear.
He was taken back to the intensive care unit and remained in stable condition Tuesday, said Dr. David Blanchard, the emergency medicine chief.
"Given the condition of his heart, his stamina, his will," Blanchard said, doctors were hopeful that Whittington would make a full recovery. After he is released, the doctor added, Whittington "will have the full life that God intended him to have."
Blanchard said the pellet evidently had migrated through Whittington's body and onto, or even inside of, his heart muscle. Doctors say that pellet is the only one that poses a risk; Blanchard estimated there were five to 200 lodged in Whittington's body.
Cheney left a midday intelligence briefing on Capitol Hill when he heard that the heart attack was about to be announced on national television. After watching Whittington's doctors outline the situation, the vice president called his hunting partner and wished him well, Cheney's office said.
Cheney, an experienced outdoorsman, was hunting at a private ranch 95 miles southwest of Corpus Christi on Saturday afternoon when he hit Whittington with a spray of birdshot.
Whittington had left the line of hunters to retrieve a downed quail, and Cheney was unaware that the attorney was behind him when he turned to fire at a covey of birds, according to a report from the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. Officials classified the shooting as due to "hunter's judgment factors."
On Monday, the local sheriff and district attorney said it was not likely that action would be taken against Cheney, calling the shooting a routine hunting accident. But Dist. Atty. Carlos Valdez said that if Whittington died, he might have to impanel a grand jury to investigate the matter. Valdez said that hunters could be charged with negligence in accidents "if they take an unreasonable risk" that could lead to injury or death.
Hunting safety experts say that to avoid hitting someone, hunters should not fire more than 90 degrees to their side. "You would never turn around and fire behind you," said Terry Erwin, president of the International Hunter Education Assn. "If the bird comes back over you, you would not take that shot."
Medical experts not involved in Whittington's care said that his prognosis was unclear, especially given the changing descriptions of his condition. The hospital had said Monday afternoon that the patient was improving markedly and had moved out of intensive care.
"This is a potentially very severe situation," said Dr. Soumitra Eachempati, a trauma surgeon at New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell hospital who has treated similar cases.
Physicians said that if Whittington's arrhythmia persists, he may need open-heart surgery to remove the pellet or risk a blood clot that could cause a stroke.
"Time will tell whether this is a onetime occurrence," said Dr. P.K. Shah, chief cardiologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. "The plot is a little thicker now."
The shooting continued to dominate Washington on Tuesday, with criticism of the White House mounting over the administration's 18-hour delay in confirming it had occurred.
Before news of the heart attack had reached Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan was making light of the vice president.
In announcing President Bush's plan to meet later in the day with the University of Texas championship football team, McClellan said: "The orange that they're wearing is not because they're concerned that the vice president may be there." Then, referring to his own orange-striped tie, he added: "That's why I'm wearing it." Hunters typically wear orange so that they will not be mistaken for prey. Cheney and Whittington were wearing such vests when the incident occurred.
In an e-mail Tuesday night, McClellan said that he did not learn of Whittington's heart attack until shortly before a later briefing. The press secretary did not mention it during that briefing because, he said, "I am not his doctor."
The White House's delay in releasing information drew public rebukes from Ari Fleischer, Bush's former press secretary, and Marlin Fitzwater, who served in that position for presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush.
"It would have been better if the vice president and/or his staff had come out last Saturday night or first thing Sunday morning and announced it," Fleischer said Tuesday in an interview with Editor & Publisher, a newspaper trade publication. "It could have and should have been handled differently."
Fitzwater told the magazine that Cheney had "ignored his responsibility to the American people" by failing to disclose the accident.
Democrats also weighed in on the issue. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said the delay in reporting it was "part of the secretive nature of this administration."
"I think it's time the American people heard from the vice president," he said.
Cheney, whose public popularity lags behind that of the president, must now deal with the hunting accident after the perjury indictment of his former chief of staff -- I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- in connection with the leak of a CIA operative's name.
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) attended the midday intelligence briefing with Cheney and said that he had joked with the vice president before news broke that Whittington's condition had worsened.
Cheney laughed at the joke "a little," Lott said, declining to repeat his witticism. "He didn't look like he was having a whole lot of fun with it. Obviously, he feels badly" about the incident.
Even if the vice president wasn't enjoying the humor, some in Washington were.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), who was once on the receiving end of a vice presidential obscenity on the floor of the Senate, said: "In retrospect, it looks like I got off easy."
Riccardi reported from Corpus Christi and Gerstenzang from Washington. Times staff writers Maura Reynolds and Peter Wallsten in Washington and Ralph Vartabedian in Los Angeles contributed to this report.