The Democrat Senate candidate in Pennsylvania had a stroke

The Senate race in Pennsylvania is, perhaps, the most important in 2022.  It is, arguably, the best chance for a pickup by Democrats of a seat currently held by retiring senator Pat Toomey (R).  Their candidate is Lt. Governor John Fetterman, a 6'8" goateed, tattooed giant whose campaign likes to paint him as a blue-collar outsider, but the truth is that he's held or run for office in Pennsylvania since 2006.  Despite his rough-hewn exterior, he's a dedicated leftist progressive in the mold of AOC.  His opponent, physician and TV personality Dr. Mehmet Oz, is painted as having fewer ties to Pennsylvania, even though he went to school and was married there.

Recent events are casting doubts on Mr. Fetterman's ability to run a vigorous campaign: shortly before the Pennsylvania primary, Fetterman suffered a stroke.

As a physician, I can tell you that there are strokes, and there are strokes.  There is still some question as to which Fetterman suffered.  On May 15, 2022 (before the primary election), Fetterman released a statement stating he was feeling much better after doctors "quickly and completely" removed a clot and was well on his way to a "full recovery."

Fetterman's statement after the primary was quite different.  In it, he said, "I avoided going to the doctor, even though I knew I didn't feel well.  As a result, I almost died[.]"  So which is it?  Most likely, the campaign didn't want any major health questions just before the primary election.  Downplaying the seriousness of the issue until afterward was the shrewd, if less than honest, move.  Still, a candidate almost dying from a stroke is something that makes you wonder if he can tolerate the rigors of a hotly contested election and, if elected, the next six years.

It could have been worse for John Fetterman.  His wife noted a drooping of one side of his mouth, a well-known sign of a stroke and the first part of the FAST strategy to diagnose strokes:

  • Face: Does one side of the face sag?
  • Arms: Raise both arms. Is one arm higher than the other?
  • Speech: Is it slurred or does it sound strange?
  • Time: Call 9-1-1 right away and get help.  The longer the period between the stroke event and the beginning of treatment, the worse the prognosis.

Luckily for the Democrat candidate, he was only minutes away from a hospital that had a well-known stroke research center.

Removing a clot from the brain, while it is serious stuff, isn't the only procedure Fetterman underwent.  He also had a combination defibrillator-pacemaker implanted in his chest.  It turns out Mr. Fetterman has had atrial fibrillation since 2017.  Atrial fibrillation is a heart condition where an arrhythmia (irregular heartbeat) causes turbulence that can lead to blood clots, stroke, heart failure, and other heart-related complications.  Fetterman admits to not taking his meds, apparently for a long time.

Patients describe the symptoms of atrial fibrillation as episodes of skipping beats; banging against the chest wall; palpitations; or a racing, quivering heart.  Those with the condition can experience weakness, shortness of breath, chest pain, nausea, and lightheadedness.  Atrial fibrillation can be occasional, or it can occur often.  Fetterman stated, "I knew I didn't feel well," so it's likely he had had symptoms for quite a while.

In addition, his cardiologist, Dr.  Ramesh Chandra, also diagnosed a condition called cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle that makes it harder for the heart to pump blood to the body and can lead to heart failure.  The combination of atrial fibrillation and cardiomyopathy means there is no guarantee that John Fetterman could serve a full six-year term as senator.  Not everyone who has a defibrillator-pacemaker and takes blood thinners can.

Doctors will be quick to mention that, properly treated, people in Mr. Fetterman's situation can recover well.  Even if he resumes the campaign trail, medical issues can be trivialized or swept under the rug.  At one point or another, however, it will be clear that he either can or can't do the job.

Will the blue-collar folks in the Keystone State vote for a man who isn't at 100 percent?  Beyond Fetterman's medical problems, there are also his leftist politics.  Once the headlines get past his medical issues, will the folks in the Keystone State vote for a man who, even when well, doesn't represent the values of the average blue-collar Pennsylvanian?

It's ironic that Dr. Oz, the Republican candidate, is a cardiac surgeon.

The battle for the Pennsylvania senate seat comes down to this: you can vote either for a guy who studied for years to become a heart doctor or someone who neglected his health for years to become a heart patient.  I'm glad John Fetterman got help in time, but he ignored serious issues that could have cost him his life.  Can he be trusted to take care of himself and his state in the future?

Joe Alton, M.D. is the N.Y. Times bestselling author of The Survival Medicine Handbook  and founder of the medical preparedness website

Image: Governor Tom Wolf via Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

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