By The Way
Oct. 14, 1978
Shortly after 7 o'clock Thursday night, an aide to John W. Warner, the Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, summoned reporters to a corner of a Big Stone Gap restaurant to announce that Mrs. Warner, Elizabeth Taylor, had been taken to a local hospital after what was thought to be a chicken bone apparently had lodged in her throat.
The restaurant was the site of a 9th Congressional District Republican dinner at which the Warners were to have been the star attraction. As the aide spoke, a buffet line that ended in another room and had been in existence for almost an hour still stretched halfway around the restaurant's main dining room.
The aide spoke firmly. The Warners had been engaged in a handshaking mission in the restaurant's kitchen. Warner saw a platter of fried chicken and said, "That's my favorite food." Warner was given a piece and he offered Mrs. Warner a bite.
"She began choking," the aide said. Reporters industriously took notes.
The aide's mood was somber. But the mood of every aide to a Republican candidate invariably is somber - as if saving the republic was solely in their hands. But that is not the story.
Part of the story is that more than five hours later Warner and two doctors, a radiologist and Dr. H.D. Patel, a Big Stone Gap gastroenterologist, came to the lobby of the hospital's waiting room to make a formal announcement.
Hours before, reporters had been told that X-rays disclosed the bone was caught not in her throat, but in her esophagus. In a low pitched voice, Patel said he had used an esophagoscope to push the bone into Mrs. Warner's stomach.
Patel is an East Indian and he speaks with an Anglo-Indian accent. He described what he did. He spelled esophagoscope. "Like a tube," he said. An anesthesia had not been used. Warner was in shirtsleeves. He looked tired and his hair was tousled, his collar unbuttoned and his tie at half-mast.
Reporters again took notes industriously. They sprinted to telephones to dictate new leads. The emergency room staff was remarkably friendly. A pleasant nurse overheard one reporter and with a smile corrected his spelling of esophagoscope.
The reporters had been maintaining a watch at the hospital for more than three hours. We listened to relays of somber faced Warner aides. Some called her Elizabeth and some called her Mrs. Warner and all said she was suffering discomfort. One aide became venturesome enough to say she did not appear to be in danger. We sprinted to telephones to impart that intelligence.
There were rumors a Richmond specialist would be flown to Big Stone Gap. An aide would neither confirm nor deny.
Patel had been summoned hours earlier. He finally was intercepted in Kinsport, Tenn. - 45 minutes away - where he was buying nursery furniture. We were told his wife had given birth to a girl that morning. "In this hospital. ...Lonesome Pine." The baby has not yet been named.
We continuously searched out truths and phoned in new leads. We talked to Joel Hart, the hospital's administrator. He spoke admiringly of Patel and said his daughter was born at 5 a.m. Lonesome Pine Hospital is five years old, has 60 beds and was built with heavy infusions of federal funds. Mrs. Warner has a private room.
One searcher for truth asked if the hospital staff had been taken aback by Mrs. Warner's arrival. "I'm sure they knew who she was very quickly," Hart said.
Mrs. Warner is accident prone. Last Monday, at a Norfolk breakfast, which featured former President Gerald Ford, she tripped on a rug as she was walking to the head table and was caught before she fell by former Gov. Mills E. Godwin Jr. Few people saw the incident.
But most of her other mishaps are well publicized. The star quality lives on. She is News.
During the night and early morning hours at Big Stone Gap, hospital staff members reported, at times breathlessly, that the television networks had been calling to ask of Mrs. Warner's health. Many people, whose only connection with TV may have been owning a set, also called to inquire. A reporter placing a call through a hospital switchboard was told by the operator, "I'm deluged... Can you answer a call from California?"
So we come to what may be the major part of the story. Is there not a mystique - for lack of anything better to call it - a mystique about Mrs. Warner. She is, after all, Elizabeth Taylor. Some reporters frequently wondered if their watch would have been kept if she were not.
And her mystique clearly extends to the Senate race between Warner and Andrew P. Miller.
I have heard deeper thinkers suggest she may well be one of the Senate race's decisive factors. Will Warner be perceived as a man who is a candidate only because of his wife's name? Or is she, as she evokes memories of movies past from many who come to see her, winning hearts and minds for Warner?
Reporters at Lonesome Pine Hospital talked about this and groped for answers and one of us said next week he will attempt to square the circle.
FOOTNOTE - The Warners flew to Richmond yesterday and Mrs. Warner was admitted to Richmond Memorial Hospital in early afternoon for "tests and observations." Henry W. Brown, the hospital's assistant administrator, quoted Mrs. Warner's Richmond doctor as saying she probably would remain in the hospital three or four days. The doctor, Dr. Owen Gwathmey, said there is no evidence the bone had caused a perforation or tear of her esophagus, but added she had pain, swelling and fever.