Skip to main content /POLITICS

Lady Bird 'undefeated' by stroke

AUSTIN, Texas (CNN) -- Lady Bird Johnson was in fair condition Sunday at an Austin hospital after a "very small stroke" last week left her unable to speak, her neurologist said.

"It's a very small stroke, but unfortunately it's in a very critical area of the brain," said Dr. Marci Roy, the former first lady's neurologist at Seton Medical Center. "She has been left with deficits in language and swallowing."

The widow of former President Lyndon Baines Johnson understands everything that is said to her but she cannot respond, Roy said. "She is able to nod her head appropriately, but there is no speech."

Mrs. Johnson, 89, is being fed through a tube, Roy said. Still, she has regained strength in her right arm, which had been weakened by the stroke.

"She has shown incredible courage throughout this," Roy said.

Roy said it was "too soon to predict" when Mrs. Johnson's condition might improve so she could be discharged. "I'm hopeful that it will improve," he said.

Daughter Luci Baines Johnson said her sister Lynda and five of their mother's grandchildren have visited her at Seton Medical Center since she was admitted Thursday evening.

Mrs. Johnson's battle against the stroke has been worsened by her long-standing case of macular degeneration, which has caused her to lose her central vision.

Unable to see well enough to read or write, "all she can do is nod yes or no and smile," Luci Johnson said.

Biography: Lady Bird Johnson 
A blood vessel bringing oxygen and nutrients to the brain bursts or is clogged by a blood clot or something else.
--Nation's No. 3 killer, behind heart disease and cancer
--About 600,000 Americans suffer a stroke each year
--160,000 Americans die annually of stroke
--Leading cause of severe, long-term disability
--Females accounted for 61.4 percent of stroke fatalities in 1998

Source: American Stroke Association

"Stroke is a mighty foe," she said. "It's a special burden. My mother is handling it as she has all of her life: with courage and grace and wit and wisdom and, especially, good humor."

But the illnesses have not robbed her of the trademark optimism that the former journalism student has displayed throughout her years on the public stage.

On Friday, family members played a videotape to Mrs. Johnson of a ceremony in which one of her great grandsons became a citizen of the United States.

"My mother raised her hand and clapped and giggled from her toes," Luci Johnson said. "So her good humor is very much with her."

Since she suffered the stroke, the only words Mrs. Johnson has spoken were to George Christian, a family friend who served as press secretary under President Johnson.

As he finished a visit with the former first lady, he turned to leave, Luci Johnson said. "She said, 'Thank you.' If George hadn't heard it, I wouldn't believe I had."

Mrs. Johnson's courage and good humor were underscored Friday when she wiggled her legs, daughter Luci said.

"I realized she was trying to say something to me," she said.

Since Mrs. Johnson could not see well enough to communicate by writing, Luci began reciting the alphabet and asked her mother to squeeze her hand when she named the letter she wanted.

Her mother squeezed at "C" and again at "O," Luci said.

"I said, 'Oh, my gosh, you're cold, aren't you?' She said, 'Yes,' and then she laughed. We are struggling to communicate with her in the same way that she is struggling to communicate with us, but she laughed and she held me and she is extraordinarily brave and she is undefeated."

Among the politicians who have expressed their best wishes are former President Jimmy Carter, former first lady Betty Ford and Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle.

Plenty of other messages have poured in, too, Luci Johnson said.

"I'll tell you, no message from anyone in office has been more precious than some of the messages that have just come from people who she has never met. For that we are deeply grateful," she said.

Several years ago, Lady Bird Johnson suffered another small stroke while she was on Martha's Vineyard and she has been treated for a heart rhythm abnormality called fibrillation.

Born Claudia Alta Taylor in Karnack, Texas, about 30 miles west of Shreveport, Louisiana, Johnson was dubbed "Lady Bird" when a nursemaid said she was "as pretty as a lady bird."

She married the future president in 1934 after a whirlwind courtship. President Johnson died in 1973.




Back to the top