updated 9/20/2004 9:24:06 AM ET 2004-09-20T13:24:06

Former President Bill Clinton left the hospital and returned to his Westchester home Friday, four days after undergoing heart bypass surgery, his office said.

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The 58-year-old former president arrived at his home in the suburban community of Chappaqua at 6:30 p.m., about 45 minutes after being discharged.

“The president is in good spirits and has taken short walks in the hospital hallway and in his home today,” Clinton spokesman Jim Kennedy said in a statement.

In a message sent through his spokesman, Clinton, his wife, Sen.  Hillary Rodham Clinton, and their daughter, Chelsea, said: “We appreciate more than words can say all the good wishes and messages of concern that we received during this difficult time in our lives.

“Your thoughts and prayers meant so much to us, and helped keep our spirits strong,” they said. “We feel blessed to have such support, and it will continue to sustain us throughout the months of recuperation that remain ahead.”

The family also thanked the doctors and nurses at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Columbia, where the former president underwent surgery Monday.

Clinton has been inundated with thousands of well-wishes and flowers. Kennedy’s statement Friday said more than 85,000 get-well messages have been received.

Clinton traveled home in a motorcade of four SUVs and a police motorbike escort.

Extensive heart disease
The former president was taken off his respirator and placed in an intensive care unit on Monday night. On Wednesday, he was moved back to his hospital room, where he walked with assistance, sat in his bed and sat up in his chair.

Doctors who performed the four-hour quadruple bypass operation found that Clinton’s heart disease was extensive, with blockages in some arteries well over 90 percent.

Clinton went to the hospital late last week after complaining of prolonged chest pain and shortness of breath, but doctors revealed Monday that he’d had these symptoms for several months. They said he had blamed them on lapses in his exercise routine and acid reflux.

In bypass surgery, doctors remove one or more blood vessels from elsewhere in the body—in Clinton’s case, two arteries from the chest and a vein from the leg—and attach them to arteries serving the heart, detouring around blockages.

The team of surgeons operating on Clinton was led by Dr. Craig R. Smith, the hospital’s chief of cardiothoracic surgery.

No campaigning, yet
Clinton had planned to campaign for Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee for president, but the recovery from surgery will stall his activities with just eight weeks left until the election. It was not immediately clear how soon he could return to the campaign trail.

It is “too soon to know what will be possible,” said Kennedy earlier this week. “As the doctors said, it will be two to three months before he is 100 percent recovered.”

Before the surgery, Clinton had been scheduled at a book signing of his new memoir in Baltimore and a book party in Washington, D.C., on Tuesday, Kennedy said.

Dr. Allan Schwartz, chief of cardiology at New York Presbyterian/Columbia, said it would be possible for Clinton in the future to lead an “extraordinarily active lifestyle” — including hitting the campaign trail.

Dr. W. Randolph Chitwood, chief cardiovascular surgeon at East Carolina University and a spokesman for the American College of Cardiology, agreed with Clinton’s doctors that the president had been in a dangerous state leading up to the operation.

“Within the next couple of weeks, something was going to happen,” he said.

South Beach diet
Clinton was described as upbeat in the days before the surgery, resting with his wife and daughter. One New York Post photo showed the former president reaching for a Boggle game near his hospital room window.

Clinton has blamed his heart problems in part on genetics — there is a history of heart disease in his mother’s family — but also said he “may have done some damage in those years when I was too careless about what I ate.”

He was lampooned during his presidency for his inability to resist fatty fast food, but he was also an avid jogger during his two terms in the White House. In recent months he has appeared much slimmer. He has said he cut out junk food, begun working out and adopted the low-carbohydrate, low-fat South Beach diet.

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