- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Sen. John Fetterman’s feel-good story has given way to the harsh realities of recovering from a near-fatal stroke and the difficulty of doing it on the national stage.

The Pennsylvania Democrat has struggled with speaking and comprehension since suffering a stroke in May but still managed to get elected last year. He joined the Senate in January — and then last week checked himself into a hospital to treat a bout of clinical depression.

Republicans sent well-wishes. Democrats cheered his bravery but privately wondered how his likely prolonged absence will affect the narrowly divided chamber.

Doctors said he is serving an important role just by checking himself in for psychiatric care.

“The boldness to go ahead to seek treatment is very impressive and welcome and for me, as someone who takes care of stroke patients, is extremely welcome,” said Dr. Bruce Ovbiagele, editor-in-chief of the Journal of the American Heart Association. “It is a reminder to stroke patients and people who care for stroke patients that this is something they should look out for.”

Roughly 800,000 Americans suffer strokes each year and about a third of survivors experience depression, according to the American Stroke Association. Dr. Ovbiagele said stroke survivors often deal with depression, resulting from damaged brain cells or the frustration from coping with new limitations.

He said dealing with a stroke first in the pressure cooker of a political campaign, and now as a sitting senator, makes things “so much harder.”

“Just trying to recover from a stroke by itself without the scrutiny is one thing,” Dr. Ovbiagele told The Washington Times. “To have the added variable of having to recover in the limelight. … That only adds pressure.”

In private, some Democrats lament an uncomfortable truth: Mr. Fetterman likely should have stepped away from politics months ago. The job of a senator demands someone who is on top of their game, they say.

Nonetheless, the overwhelming response to Mr. Fetterman’s latest hospitalization has been positive.

“We’ve come so far in destigmatization of these brain illnesses, but we still have so far to go,” former Rep. Patrick Kennedy, who struggled with substance abuse issues, tweeted. “In the midst of our national mental health crisis, Senator Fetterman’s leadership by example may just be life-saving for many other Americans.”

The health hiccup adds another chapter to an already unique story for Mr. Fetterman, a tattooed, 6-foot-8-inch man who fused a far-left agenda to an everyman approach to campaigning and was on his way to political stardom before the stroke.

The Senate, where the median age is 65, is no stranger to lawmakers dealing with debilitating medical issues.

Sen. Tim Johnson, South Dakota Democrat, was out of the chamber for nearly nine months from 2006 to 2007 after a stroke-like brain hemorrhage resulting from an arteriovenous malformation or AVM.

Democrats had just taken a 51-49 edge in the chamber in 2007, and if Mr. Johnson had died, his seat would likely have been filled by a Republican, creating a 50-50 Senate which, given the vice president at the time was a Republican, would have put the chamber into the GOP’s hands.

Mr. Johnson returned in September 2007 and even went on to win reelection in 2008, with state voters — Democrats and Republicans — using the race as a chance to cheer on his recovery.

Several years later, Sen. Mark Kirk, Illinois Republican, had a stroke at age 52, leaving his left side permanently paralyzed.

In a 2016 op-ed, Mr. Kirk said he had to relearn how to walk, talk and read. Knowing people would look at him differently, Mr. Kirk said he decided to “force people to judge me by my actions.”

The response was sympathetic to a certain extent. 

While his colleagues cheered him on after he was able to once again walk up the Capitol steps, he also face steep doubts.

“We cannot tiptoe around the issue of Kirk’s recovery and readiness,” the Chicago Tribune editorial board said in a 2016 endorsement of Tammy Duckworth, his Democratic rival who eventually defeated Mr. Kirk in the primary and went on to win the general election.

“We aren’t physicians; Kirk’s doctor attests to his good cognitive health,” the board said. “But we are voters. And our reluctant judgment is that, due to forces beyond his control, Kirk no longer can perform to the fullest the job of a U.S. Senator.”

Mr. Kirk called it a “sucker punch.”

Mr. Fetterman’s experience during last year’s campaign was closer to Mr. Kirk’s than Mr. Johnson’s.

Republicans delivered withering attacks on Mr. Fetterman’s health and his inability to keep a campaign schedule. The one debate they held was seen as a trainwreck, with Mr. Fetterman struggling to understand the questions, delivered to him in a talk-to-text format, and to formulate smooth responses.

Mr. Fetterman still prevailed by about 3.5 percentage points over GOP rival Mehmet Oz, a celebrity physician.

“This campaign has always been about fighting for everyone who has ever been knocked down that ever got back up,” Mr. Fetterman said in his election night victory speech, which brought him on the verge of tears.

Christopher P. Borick, a political science professor at Muhlenberg College in Pennsylvania, said the stigma around strokes has lessened over the years and said he expects the public will be patient with Mr. Fetterman’s recovery, at least at first.

“The tenor of the discussion could change if he is unable to eventually reengage with the responsibilities that come with the office,” Mr. Borick said.

He said the situation gives Mr. Fetterman another chance to make history.

“His path to the Senate win in Pennsylvania broke new ground in terms of both his brand and overcoming of a major health crisis to win that office,” Mr. Borick said. “Now he is not by his own choice certainly, but by his circumstances, breaking new ground in terms of the very real battle he is waging with depression — and doing it all in the spotlight once again.”

• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at smclaughlin@washingtontimes.com.

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