Washington Sen. Strom Thurmond, 99 next month and the nation's longest serving and oldest senator, has taken up residence in Walter Reed Army Medical Center and now is using a wheelchair to get around the Capitol.
His staff and family insist that Thurmond, the senior senator from South Carolina, is not sick and that his move from his Alexandria, Va., apartment last Friday to a room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., is only temporary.
"There has been an increasing need for closer medical monitoring of his daily medications," a Thurmond family statement said.
When asked how long Thurmond would stay at Walter Reed, his estranged wife, Nancy Thurmond, told The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier: "We're not sure. We're taking it a day at a time."
"This is a family decision ... that I would make for my parents, and you would make for yours," she said later. "He's 98 years old-plus, and he needs some assistance."
She did not immediately return calls Wednesday.
Rebecca Fleming, a spokeswoman for Thurmond, said the senator is keeping his Alexandria apartment and will continue with his Senate duties. A Senate driver will pick Thurmond up daily at Walter Reed.
Thurmond, who has always been proud of his health, also is now publicly using a wheelchair to get around the Capitol. While he's used wheelchairs before privately, he rarely has been seen in public in one. Usually, he's seen around the Capitol walking with the aid of one or two staffers.
But "his hip has been a source of discomfort for some time," Fleming said. "His doctors recommended and the senator decided that he would probably use a wheelchair."
Thurmond suffers from degenerative hip problems that make it difficult to walk, aides said. He was wheeled into the Capitol and up to the Senate chamber Tuesday and Wednesday, although he walked to his desk with the help of aides.
Service earns a suite
Thurmond will be living in a hospital room in Walter Reed's Eisenhower Executive Suite. He gets to stay there because of his special status as a designee of the secretary of the Army, Walter Reed spokesman Jim Stueve said.
"If you're a member of Congress and have DSA status, if you so desire, you can go to any military medical facility and seek treatment on a for-fee basis," Stueve said. "Senator Thurmond is here because he's been coming here, and it was decided they can best monitor his medical situation by having him here."
Thurmond, a World War II veteran, is a retired major general in the Army Reserve and former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Stueve said he did not know how much it costs to stay in the Eisenhower suites.
"There are about six rooms in this suite, individual hospital rooms, and they are primarily used by general officers, members of Congress, foreign diplomats and heads of state who have also been given this designation," he said. "It's a secure area you can't get in unless they want you to get in and it affords these people a certain level of security and privacy but also gives them the opportunity to come and go as they please."
Thurmond will turn 99 on Dec. 5 and will be 100 when his term ends in January 2003. He says he intends to retire in South Carolina then.