ALBANY, N.Y. -- Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton said yesterday ''we feel blessed" that her husband's artery blockage was discovered in time for him to have successful heart bypass surgery.
Former President Clinton is ''really doing well," she said. ''The relief is just overwhelming."
In her first extensive interview since the medical issue arose, Clinton said the former president is ''following the orders of doctors, nurses, and everyone else who told him what he should do to begin slowly gaining his strength back."
Clinton said she and daughter Chelsea are taking turns watching over his recovery ''to make sure he just continues to take it easy." She said the recovery should take from six to eight weeks.
''We have been at his side literally and figuratively" since he went into the hospital Sept. 3. He had quadruple heart bypass surgery three days later and was released from New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia in New York City last Friday.
''I'm on my way back to Chappaqua right now to assume my duty," she said late Tuesday afternoon as she spoke on a cellphone, en route from Washington to Westchester County, north of New York City, where the former president is recuperating at home.
Clinton said that her husband is disappointed he can't hit the campaign trail on behalf of Democratic presidential candidate John F. Kerry, but that she will try to pick up the slack.
''We had some [campaign] events we were both going to cover, that I will cover alone, and others that I will pick up," she said. ''But I'm also very focused on also helping our Senate candidates and a couple of House candidates."
Clinton said she knew her husband had been having ''a little shortness of breath" during recent workouts.
''And, like most wives, I said, 'Why don't you go and see [a doctor] about it?' " she recalled Tuesday. ''And he said, 'Oh, you know, I think it's just I'm not in good enough shape. I just need to work out more.' "
''And then we had the pains when he was at rest, and that was the wake-up call," she said.
''The seriousness totally came out of the blue," Clinton said.
''It turned out to be a blessing in disguise, which we all know now, because one of the things that I have learned is that a third of the people have heart attacks and die, and a third have a heart attack and live with some damage from that.
''And a third are lucky, as Bill was, to have some warning signals and be able to deal with it," she said.
Senator Clinton said she had a message for everyone in the wake of the experience.
''I hope this very public medical emergency that Bill had encourages men and women to have checkups, to have their cholesterol measured, to not ignore any signs of pain or distress, but to really take heart disease seriously," she said.
''I have to confess, 10 days ago, I was like most people. I knew of the dangers and the killer potential of heart disease, but I wasn't as aware of all of the manifestations that we all should know more about," Clinton said.
She also said ''the reaction of people all over the country, and even the world, has buoyed our spirits, and I just can't thank people enough."