Plains -- Jimmy Carter said Monday he was “deathly afraid” during what he described as the “very serious” operation his wife underwent this past weekend.
Rosalynn Carter, 90, had surgery at Emory University Hospital in Atlanta to remove “troubling scar tissue” from a portion of her small intestine, according to a statement the Carter Center released on Sunday. On Monday morning, her husband of 71 years described in greater detail the condition that resulted from what he said was a tumor removal she underwent half a century ago.
“For the last 25 years, she has had trouble with her intestines and bowels,” Jimmy Carter, 93, told several hundred people attending a free Presidents Day event at the Jimmy Carter National Historic Site in Plains. “Saturday night they operated and found the scar tissue from the old operation about fifty years ago had strangled almost two feet of her small intestine.”
The surgery went well, but the former president endured some rocky hours along the way himself.
Doctors “didn’t give me a lot of hope before the operation was over,” Carter said. “I was deathly afraid. I prayed for three hours.
“Finally, the doctor came in about 5 o’clock on Sunday morning and told me she was gonna be OK,” Carter concluded as the crowd burst into applause.
While this was the fourth consecutive year that Carter had appeared at the Presidents Day event held in the old Plains high school, it was also “the first time my wife has not been here,” he pointed out. And indeed, the former first lady of Georgia and the United States was much in visitors’ thoughts here.
“How is Rosalynn,” Nancy Clark of Nevada City, California, wondered aloud to several people as she waited with dozens of others for the doors to open to the auditorium an hour before the program’s scheduled 11 a.m. start.
True to form, ex-Navy officer Jimmy Carter strode in six minutes early, at 10:54 a.m., and lost no time in answering the question that was on everyone’s mind. Then, he spent close to an hour sharing his thoughts on three topics he said he’d been asked to discuss this Presidents Day: The vision for the Department of Education when it was created during his one term as president; reflections on the women’s movement and the status of women, and how the role of the president has been affected by technological advancement in information dissemination such as social media.
“I can’t wait to hear what he thinks of social media,” Cindy Hollingsworth chuckled knowingly beforehand. Along with her husband, Bill, and a 12-year-old family friend, she’d driven all the way from Rock Springs, Ga., near the Tennessee border to spend Presidents Day with the man whose hand she’d shaken as a youngster in 1976 when he was newly elected to the presidency. “That alone will be worth the drive.”
Carter didn’t disappoint on that count, although he may have surprised anyone who expected him to kick social media when it’s down these days.
“I know that recently there’s been a lot of abuse by social media, but I have to say it’s opened up an unprecedented avenue between U.S. citizens and citizens around the world,” said Carter, whose Carter Center fights disease and poverty in some of the most remote parts of the world. “When I go places, everyone I meet has a cell phone and can communicate and stay in touch.”
For many in the audience, meanwhile, tiny Plains, Ga. was the best — if not the only — place they could imagine being on this very American holiday weekend.
“It’s cool to spend Presidents Day with a president,” said Brandon Gray, 23, of North Carolina. “There’s not many people that could say that.”
He’d already had one near miss. Gray and his friend, Michael Holbrook, 19, had driven to Plains from Greensboro, N.C. in the wee hours of Sunday morning. They’d headed straight to Maranatha Baptist Church, where the former president had been scheduled to teach Sunday School. Hundreds of visitors regularly pack the small church for Carter’s classes, especially now that he’s announced he intends to start cutting back on his teaching schedule.
But when the North Carolina duo pulled into the Maranatha parking lot around 5:45 a.m., “No one else was there,” Holbrook laughingly recalled. “We were like u-h-h-h …”
Carter had cancelled teaching to be with his wife, although he later made it to Maranatha in time to attend the 11 a.m. church service and take photos with visitors afterwards. Gray and Holbrook were gone by then, but took no chances on Monday: They were first through the doors to claim seats in the front row of the auditorium where Carter also answered questions submitted by students and held a booksigning.
But there was no doubt who was uppermost in his mind the whole time. In response to one question-- “What is cooler, winning the presidency or winning the Nobel Peace Prize?” -- Carter basically said both made him very happy.
But he wasn’t done counting his blessings yet.
“The only other time I remember when I was that happy,” he said, “is when the doctor came in Sunday morning and told me that my wife was alive.”