Sad Guy

Recovering from a stroke—an attack on the brain—is a tough way to run for the U.S. Senate.

The most indelible story of the recent midterm election, other than what appears to be a rejection of election denial and most candidates running on that premise, might be called the Ballad of John Fetterman. It revolved around the stroke that befell him just four days before the May Primary from which he emerged with the Democratic nomination for one of the two U.S. Senate seats in Pennsylvania. That seat will be vacated in January by Republican Pat Toomey who opted not to seek another six-year term just weeks before the 2020 election that Donald Trump lost by about seven million votes. Sen Toomey, a Wall Street banker before going into politics, also made a belated endorsement of Trump and said he too would be returning to the private sector.

It could have been a difference in what would result in Democratic control of the Senate and Fetterman’s unlikely victory. I say unlikely, because Fetterman himself, a six-feet-nine-inch giant festooned in tattoos who shuns wearing suits and ties, is an unlikely candidate and a more unlikely winner. Then again, so is Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right conspiracy theorist, who won a seat in the House of Representatives in the same election Trump lost. Then again, she was elected by Georgians, 1.9 million of whom voted for Herschel Walker last week, forcing a run-off in that state. Walker’s qualifications for high elected office are purely in Trump’s imagination. If Walker beats Raphael Warnock, the highly qualified incumbent, for that seat, he will be one of the few election deniers and Trump-endorsed candidates to win in the midterm election of 2022.

Still, even in these strange times, I can think of nothing more improbable than the candidacy and resultant victory of Fetterman on November 8, 2022. Not only did he have to overcome some dead brain cells, but he took the courageous (some felt foolhardy) step of debating the glib and nimble-minded Dr. Oz as Republicans watched with high expectations and Democrats with dread. Dread seemed to win out with one oft-played stuttering sequence (“I do support fracking… I support fracking, and I do support fracking…”) that was immediately featured in one GOP-aligned ad during the two-week stretch run to election day.

To me it was a courageous showing, but I wondered if it stood up to Oz’s rapid-fire performance contrasting Fetterman’s deliberative approach and several “word-choice difficulties” as stated in one critique? It was painful to some Fetterman rooters and dare I say joyful for Oz backers. The problem was that two words—“recovering” and “temporary”—  come to mind that may have curbed some of the apparent advantages Oz seemed to enjoy. Oz, a heart-surgeon-turned-TV-star with a-$20 million yearly salary for the TV gig alone, surely knew that his opponent was well on a path to recovery despite struggling through what is known as the auditory-processing stage. Oz, to his credit, stayed away from implying that Fetterman may be permanently brain-damaged and chose to label his concerns as “health-related” while suggesting the 52-year-old Fetterman was not being transparent in stating his condition.

Fetterman’s response to cruel and patronizing comments in the wake of the debate as Republicans piled on in expectation of Oz sprinting ahead to claim the lead was compelling in its honesty: “Let’s talk about the elephant in the room: I had a stroke. He’s (Oz) never let me forget that… It knocked me down, but I’m going to keep coming back up.”

Strokes strike some 800,000 Americans a year—comparable to the population of San Francisco and more than that of Washington D.C. Most of us probably know someone who had one. It’s a major disability in this country that can be fatal, perhaps the beginning of the end, but if you show a marked path of improvement within six months from the stroke, your chances of moderate, even full, recovery are pretty good.

Even though all strokes and recoveries thereof are not the same, the stages of recovery are quite clear. Fetterman is on that path, brain scientists will tell you, and has survived months of stress, strain and anxiety in the aftermath of his stroke. If that doesn’t strain your brain, nothing will.

Potential Disability on a Healing Trajectory?

To put it more succinctly, the storyline for this triumph is this: A courageous man, facing the derision of hard-hearted partisans, confronts a potential disability and proves that sometimes humanity does count in politics. Voters must have sensed this and the mental stamina it must have taken, not only to stay in this often-cruel race, but eventually prevail.

Disabled Americans have a long history of serving in public office. Some must live with these disabilities and others may, through medical treatment and the brain healing itself, leave them behind. They are stronger and wiser for having overcome them.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt guided us out of the devastation of the Great Depression and through a world war to the threshold of victory before he died. His public appearances were meticulously choreographed, aided and abetted by aides, supporters and even the press for fear that his need for leg braces and a wheelchair would diminish him as the leader he had to be. Unlike Fetterman, whose damaged brain functions are returning as other parts of the brain assume the roles of dead brain cells while damaged cells heal and retain function, FDR would never regain the use of his legs. The demands of his job led him to exhaustion in mid-April of 1945 when the death blow was dealt by a cerebral hemorrhage, also known as a hemorrhagic stroke. This is when weakened blood vessels burst and bleed into the surrounding brain, disrupting cells there from communicating with each other.

Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor was felled by this kind of stroke at the age of 37 and, in her words in a New York Times article: “Within a few hours I could not walk, talk, read, write or recall any memories of my life. I had instantaneously become an infant in a woman’s body.” Dr. Taylor, a neuroscientist, was “teaching and performing brain research” at Harvard Medical School at the time. She lived through it and 25 years later remains proof of the recuperative powers of the brain and a process known as neuroplasticity : “The complete recovery of my own brain following major trauma is a testament to the power of neuroplasticity and our ability to recover lost function.”

These internal healing powers are also present in John Fetterman’s brain. It doesn’t mean that he’ll always be immune to further damage to the brain. None of us are, but Dr. Taylor, as she theorized about three weeks ago, all indications are that his brain was on a healing trajectory:

“Those of us who study the brain immediately recognize that Mr. Fetterman’s cognitive competence appears to be just fine. It may take a few months before Mr. Fetterman feels up to the scrutiny of the public and forgoes closed captioning, but the neuroplasticity of the brain is an ongoing process and will continue to repair and help him heal.”