Austin was hospitalized for complications from prostate cancer surgery | ET REALITY


Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has been hospitalized for the past week due to complications after undergoing prostate cancer surgery, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center said in a statement Tuesday.

A hospital official said Mr. Austin was admitted on Jan. 1 with severe abdominal, hip and leg pain after he underwent what the hospital characterized as a “minimally invasive surgical procedure” known as a prostatectomy the week before. The defense secretary, who had developed an infection, was admitted to intensive care, where excess abdominal fluid was drained.

Since then, “his infection has cleared,” according to the statement from Dr. John Maddox and Dr. Gregory Chesnut of Walter Reed.

By finally revealing the details of the ailment that had knocked Austin out of action (second only to the president in the military chain of command) during the crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, the Pentagon sought to correct its own unforced error. Mr. Austin had tried to protect his medical privacy; instead, his secrecy inflated the hospitalization into a full-blown national security crisis.

White House spokesman John F. Kirby said Tuesday that the White House only learned of the prostate cancer diagnosis that day. The White House was also belatedly informed of Mr. Austin’s hospitalization.

The episode has raised questions about Mr. Austin’s personal credibility, as well as the overall competence of his department. The changing stories of the Defense Department, exposed by junior officials seeking to protect their boss, have not helped matters. The flagrant violation of protocol has also diminished the credibility of the Pentagon as a whole, current and former U.S. lawmakers and officials told both the White House and Congress.

Congressional Republicans, in particular, have taken issue with the incident.

“His failure to notify Congress of his inability to perform his duties was a clear violation of the law,” Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, said in a statement.

Maj. Gen. Patrick S. Ryder, the Pentagon press secretary, said Monday that the Defense Department’s general counsel was reviewing the matter to determine whether any laws had been broken regarding required notifications to Congress.

Rep. Mike D. Rogers of Alabama, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, announced Tuesday that he had launched an investigation into Austin’s failure to disclose his hospitalization and incapacitation.

Last Thursday, while Austin was out of action, the United States launched a previously approved retaliation strike in Baghdad that killed a militia leader who Pentagon officials said was responsible for recent attacks on American troops in the region.

Despite the reassuring tone of Tuesday’s news release, prostate cancer experts said prostatectomies, or partial or total removal of the prostate gland, are by no means “minimally invasive.”

“It’s a major oncologic surgery,” said Dr. Judd Moul, a professor of urology at Duke and formerly a surgeon at Walter Reed.

And the complications that followed Mr. Austin’s surgery were extensive, as his time in intensive care made clear, said Dr. Herbert Lepor, a professor of urology at New York University School of Medicine. “He is in Intensive Care Unit. He is still not at home.”

The 70-year-old defense secretary is fiercely private and has been cagey about his medical problems, refusing to reveal why he was in the hospital for more than a week. The issue has been a topic of intense interest since Friday, when the Pentagon publicly revealed for the first time that he had been in the hospital for four days after what a spokesman described as elective surgery.

Mr. Austin’s hospitalization was hidden from the White House and President Biden for three days. Pentagon officials informed the White House on Thursday that the defense secretary had been hospitalized. Lawmakers were not informed until Friday.

Biden, who spoke with the secretary on Saturday, said he still has faith in Austin.

But a senior White House official on Tuesday ordered Cabinet secretaries to keep his office informed when they were unable to perform their duties. In a memo, White House chief of staff Jeffrey D. Zients directed Cabinet officials to evaluate their policies for delegating authority when a secretary is incapacitated and to submit those procedures to the White House for review. Zients also made clear that White House officials hoped to stay informed about developments such as important medical issues.

Kirby, the spokesman, also confirmed that the White House was not aware that Austin’s procedure in December was surgery under general anesthesia, which would normally trigger the transfer of power from a defense secretary to his deputy.

White House officials have expressed dismay that the country’s top defense official, who is part of the nuclear chain of command, was in the intensive care unit for so long without the president or other top national security officials. they realized Even Mr Austin’s deputy, who would be asked to act in crisis in his absence, was not informed at first.

The Pentagon has said that because Austin’s chief of staff, Kelly E. Magsamen, was sick last week, she was unable to make notifications until Thursday. At the time, Ms. Magsamen briefed Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense, and Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, according to General Ryder.

It was unclear why another senior Pentagon adviser did not make the notifications earlier in the week. According to the Pentagon, four aides to the secretary were informed of the hospitalization on Jan. 2, but did not immediately inform other key officials.

Doctors at Walter Reed said Mr. Austin’s prostate cancer was caught early and his prognosis was “excellent.”

In the statement, Walter Reed doctors said Mr. Austin’s health examinations last year had shown changes in antigens used to identify prostate cancer. “Changes in his laboratory evaluation in early December 2023 identified prostate cancer, which required treatment,” doctors said in the statement.

Prostate cancer is a fairly common cancer in men and is the second leading cause of cancer death among American men. But the disease usually progresses slowly.

“Prostate cancer is eminently treatable, and I look forward to his continued tenure,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. But he added: “I deeply regret this delay in providing an explanation.”

Mr. Austin was admitted to Walter Reed on Dec. 22, according to the statement, where he underwent a prostatectomy “to treat and cure prostate cancer.”

After Mr. Austin was rushed to the hospital on New Year’s Day, doctors found a urinary tract infection, according to the statement, and on Jan. 2 decided to transfer him to the intensive care unit “for close monitoring.” and a higher level of care.” .” Doctors found accumulations of abdominal fluid that they said were affecting the function of his small intestine and drained them.

Dr. Moul, Dr. Lepor and Dr. Peter Albertsen of the University of Connecticut said that by reading between the lines of Walter Reed’s statement, they could guess what had probably happened.

Fluid (probably urine) leaked into Mr Austin’s abdomen, probably from the seal surgeons had made to connect the space between the bladder and urethra. That irritated his pelvis and caused his intestine to spasm and freeze. Doctors had to insert a gastric tube to drain fluid from his stomach because, with his intestine frozen, he had nowhere to go.

“This is not the typical course” of recovery from a prostatectomy, Dr. Lepor said. “But it can happen.”

Experts questioned the rush to perform this procedure. Prostate cancers tend to grow slowly, and doctors typically wait six weeks between a biopsy that reveals the cancer and treatment. However, men can safely wait several months, Dr. Lepor said.

“If you are secretary of defense,” he added, “you can’t just say, ‘I’m going to undergo this procedure.’”

Karoun Demirjian and Peter Panadero contributed with reports.

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