The Soviets: Putting the Rumors to Rest

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Officially, it was described as "a bad cold." But feverish imaginations in the world press soon produced far more colorful explanations for Soviet President Yuri Andropov's total disappearance from public life last August: he had been shot by Leonid Brezhnev's son, he was suffering from Parkinson's disease, he had had a stroke, he was recovering—or not recovering—from kidney transplant surgery. What actually happened to Andropov is much less melodramatic and far more logical. Here are the details of his recent medical history, as assembled by TIME from authorities in the U.S. and abroad:

The first medically important fact about the patient was his age at the time of death: 69, seven years beyond the average life expectancy for Soviet males. Andropov had suffered a heart attack about 20 years ago and, like nearly 10% of people over 65, he had diabetes. The combination of cardiovascular disease and diabetes made him a high-risk candidate for kidney trouble, and he was suffering from kidney problems when he assumed power in November 1982. By last February, his kidney function had become so poor that he started treatment on a dialysis machine.

Andropov's doctors were extremely sophisticated in treating cardiac and renal disorders. Despite recent reports, it was all but unthinkable that they would have even seriously considered, much less performed, a kidney transplant. The Soviet leader's age, diabetes and heart disease would have made the procedure far too risky. Instead, Andropov received increasing dialysis treatments, at first two or three times a week and eventually every other day. The treatments took place in a sanitarium near Moscow and also at a southern resort. This therapy and the successful control of complications caused by infection permitted him to resume all of his official activities late last spring after a 1½-month absence. By July he was embarked on a program of exercise and swimming to rebuild his strength and was preparing for an official visit to Bulgaria.

But Andropov's progress was halted sharply when he reportedly developed a form of leg ulcers common to diabetic patients of his age. This presented a dilemma for his doctors. To help the ulcers heal, their patient had to stay off his feet. But to regain muscular strength, much diminished by illness and confinement, he needed physical activity. The physical activity was also vital because his circulation needed to be improved in order to make the dialysis more effective. Low blood pressure hampers dialysis.

The various symptoms Andropov displayed during his last appearances in public in mid-August—trembling hands, uneven gait, difficulty in getting out of his chair—were caused by muscle weakness brought on by diabetes and the kidney problems. The stiffness that observers detected in the Soviet leader's left arm was due to the repeated use of that arm for dialysis.

Andropov's ailments also made him unusually susceptible to infections and colds, which can easily develop into pneumonia in such patients. Medical concern about exposure to infectious agents was one reason for the Soviet President's absence from public meetings. His personal outside contacts were probably limited to close associates and Politburo members.

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