Dr. Forest Tennant has treated thousands of patients in nearly four decades of practice as a pain management specialist in West Covina, California.
But there is one particular patient that Tennant is fascinated by, even though he never treated him: John F. Kennedy.
As Americans reflect on the 50th anniversary of Kennedy’s assassination, lost in the news coverage of what happened that sunny day in Dallas is the story of a man who Tennant calls an “inspiration” to pain patients.
Tennant — who met Kennedy briefly as a college student — sees a man who struggled daily with chronic pain and was nearly crippled by it.
“Most of us normal people can’t comprehend what it is like to be in severe intractable pain, 24 hours a day. That’s where he was at. And he rarely ever complained about it,” says Tennant.
“I’ve been a little surprised how little there has been about his health issues, with all the publicity about the assassination and everything. But he does have a very interesting medical history.”
Tennant knows a lot about that history, having researched and written a series of articles about Kennedy’s health problems, including one last year for Practical Pain Management.
Many Americans know about Kennedy’s bad back and the rocking chair he used to sit in at the White House to help ease his pain.
Few are familiar with the whole story – that as a child Kennedy likely suffered from Schmidt’s syndrome, an autoimmune disease that left him sickly and gaunt. That disease (and the steroid shots that Kennedy received to treat it) would eventually lead to celiac disease, Addison’s disease, thyroid disease and severe osteoporosis.
By the time Kennedy was in the Navy and serving on PT 109, he already suffered from chronic low back pain. Crew members say Kennedy slept on a plywood board and wore a corset-type brace to support his back.
“Some of the people who were with him on the PT 109 made the comment that he never complained,” Tennant told National Pain Report.
“I see that in a lot of my own patients. Nobody likes to admit that they have severe pain. It’s one of those things that people want to keep to themselves, they don’t want to complain. It’s a natural instinct I think in most people. When you have severe pain, you feel like you’re sort of an inferior person and you don’t want to talk about it.”
Kennedy’s back problems continued after the war and he had two major spine surgeries. Still his pain worsened.
“He was totally losing weight, despondent and terribly ill and had seen many, many doctors,” Tennant said.
Kennedy’s health finally changed for the better in 1955, when Dr. Janet Travell began treating him. Travell took a comprehensive approach to pain management – rare for her time – and began treating Kennedy with opioid pain medication, physical therapy, hormone replacement, and drugs designed to slow the progression of his autoimmune disease.
“Within around six to nine months after she took over his care, he was up and going, fully functioning. The medications he took at that time, we know he took methadone, we know he took Demerol, and some morphine,” says Tennant.
Kennedy’s health problems — and the extent of the medication he was receiving — were not fully known until his medical records were released in 2002.
Kennedy himself rarely talked about them, which Tennant says is typical for a pain patient.
“For every one person who exaggerates their pain or their need for medication, I have three or four people who understate what they need and how severe they have problems,” Tennant says.
“There are myths about pain patients, how they behave and how they act. But his behavior, as far as him not complaining and not trying to whimper about it, is fairly typical in my experience with people.”
In addition to Kennedy, Tennant has also written about the medical treatment of Elvis Presley, Howard Hughes and Doc Holliday – all pain patients who struggled with drugs and addiction in a desperate search for relief.
Tennant says their stories are important to know — to demystify chronic pain and the drugs used to treat it.
“There have been a lot of famous, very accomplished people who had really severe pain and had to take opioid drugs for life,” said Tennant. “And so I wrote those stories to be an inspiration to patients and also to educate physicians and other people who treat pain patients.”