Johnson due to return tonight Irregular heartbeat brings hospital stay; no heart disease seen


Orioles manager Davey Johnson, suffering from an irregular heartbeat, checked into St. Joseph Medical Center yesterday and missed last night's game, but he is expected to return to his duties tonight.

Johnson fell because of dizziness at his home yesterday morning and went to the Heart Institute at St. Joseph shortly thereafter for a series of tests that revealed a case of atrial fibrillation -- essentially the same problem that bothered Orioles pitcher David Wells in spring training, according to team doctor William Goldiner. Johnson was to remain in the hospital for observation overnight, and bench coach Andy Etchebarren assumed his duties as manager.

Goldiner expects Johnson, who had no chest pains, will be released today.

"There is no evidence of coronary disease," Goldiner said, adding that there also were no signs of heart damage. "He has no evidence of a heart attack. . . . He has a history of high blood pressure, which might've caused this. But his blood pressure has been fine [recently].

"We're hoping he'll get back to a normal rhythm."

Cardiologists who specialize in the electrical rhythms of the heart said Johnson's condition could range from benign to fatal, depending on its cause. But two specialists cautioned that almost a third of the population experiences irregular heartbeats, a proportion that increases as people grow older.

"Irregular heartbeats are common. Lightheadedness is common. The only thing here that isn't common is that it's Davey Johnson," said Dr. Hugh Calkins, director of the arrhythmia service at the Johns Hopkins Hospital. "I see lots of people every single day with both of these problems. Most of the time it turns out to be extra beats because they skipped a meal, or were dehydrated."

Several Orioles players have showed up in Calkins' office with the same symptoms, he said. Except for one minor-league player who needed to have a catheterization to destroy the heart tissue causing the abnormal rhythm, the other players' arrhythmias stemmed from being in the heat too long, or not drinking enough fluids.

But irregular heartbeats also may be a reflection of underlying heart disease.

Dr. Stephen R. Shorofsky, an electrophysiologist and assistant DTC professor of medicine at the University of Maryland Medical Center, said that's often the case, particularly when someone who hasn't had arrhythmias begins to experience them. The heart's upper or lower chambers could have begun to beat too fast, or too slow, or in a chaotic, uncoordinated manner. That, in turn, makes it difficult for the heart to effectively pump blood to the body and the brain, making the person dizzy.

Etchebarren said Johnson "seemed to be feeling all right" after Wednesday's 10-5 win over Seattle. But, "in the last month, and I'm pretty close to him," Etchebarren said, "I noticed he was getting a little faint now and then, taking smelling salts once in a while."

Etchebarren found out about Johnson's illness when he arrived at the park yesterday. "I came to the ballpark early at about 1 o'clock, with a message to call [general manager] Pat Gillick," Etchebarren said. "At first I thought he was kidding me. Then he told me no, Davey's in the hospital and he told me what happened.

"He's a good friend of mine. I'm concerned about him. Susan [Johnson's wife] told me he's going to be fine. I feel better about that. He'll be back on the bench tomorrow. I'll try to run the ballgames exactly like he's running the ballgames."

Etchebarren joked to Johnson in a phone call before last night's game that the Orioles were going "to win one for the Gipper." But Etchebarren made it clear to reporters he did not relish the idea of managing the Orioles, not under these circumstances.

"I'm not excited," Etchebarren said. "My friend's in the hospital. I don't want to win for me, I want to win for Davey and the ballclub. It's more important for me than anything. . . . I don't have any managerial aspirations."

Johnson, who was not available for comment, is ill at a time when the Orioles are playing some of their best baseball of the season, after months of lackluster performances and controversy.

"I told him that if this was about stress," Goldiner joked, "this should've happened a month ago."

Pub Date: 8/23/96

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