- The Washington Times
Friday, September 2, 2022

The health of Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman of Pennsylvania has received relatively little media scrutiny since he suffered a stroke more than three months ago, an episode that he says nearly killed him.

Mr. Fetterman and Republican rival Mehmet Oz were supposed to square off in their first debate Tuesday night, but Mr. Fetterman bowed out. Instead of saying he wasn’t physically ready to debate, Mr. Fetterman claimed the Oz campaign was mocking his recovery.

Rather than raising questions about debate-dodging and Mr. Fetterman’s fitness, most media coverage was devoted to criticizing Mr. Oz for complaining that his opponent was ducking transparency.

“The media is absolutely giving [Mr. Fetterman] a pass for his health,” said Republican strategist Ray Zaborney, a veteran of campaigns in Pennsylvania. “If a Republican couldn’t debate because of his health, that is all we would hear about.”

Mr. Fetterman, the state’s lieutenant governor, also is avoiding questions about whether he will ever debate Mr. Oz, a former TV celebrity doctor. He is leading Mr. Oz by 7.4 percentage points in the Real Clear Politics average of recent polls.

In the absence of a debate, Mr. Oz has scheduled a press conference Tuesday with retiring Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, a Republican whose seat he hopes to win. The contest in the battleground state is one of the most closely watched this year as Democrats seek to defend their majority hold on the 50-50 split Senate.

In one of Mr. Fetterman’s few media appearances, he recently conducted a recorded interview with MSNBC and complained that the Oz campaign was ridiculing him as a stroke survivor.

“When they want to get into a serious conversation and really talk about having a debate, I’d be happy to engage in that,” Mr. Fetterman told host Stephanie Ruhle, who didn’t press him on the subject.

Mr. Fetterman did say that he feels “amazing” and is walking 5 miles per day. He also said he is having difficulty hearing sometimes.

“The only lingering issue is every now and then I will have auditory processing [difficulty],” he said. “And I might miss a word every now and then. Or I might mush two words together.”

Oz campaign communications director Brittany Yanick said Mr. Fetterman is ducking debates and lying about whether he will ever square off against Mr. Oz on a debate stage.

He won’t debate Dr. Oz at all, and we all know it,” Ms. Yanick said. “We thought John Fetterman was a big, tough guy, so what is he so afraid of? Is he afraid of defending his radical record of releasing murderers back on the streets? Let us know, John.”

Mr. Zaborney said, “He should debate, and if he can’t, just say so and let voters make their determination. He’s trying to have it both ways. Either your health is bad and you can’t debate or your health is fine and he won’t debate — can’t be both.”

During the Democratic primary, Mr. Fetterman took part in two debates and was panned by fellow Democrats for poor performances. Other Democrats characterized his debating style as “unlistenable,” “painfully bad” and “not ready for prime time.”

The Fetterman campaign did not respond to requests for comment for this article.

Mr. Fetterman, 53, suffered a stroke on May 13, four days before the Democratic primary. He had a pacemaker implanted on May 17.

He credits his wife, Gisele, for recognizing the stroke symptoms and taking him to a medical facility within 20 minutes.

“I’m just so grateful that I not only that I survived because I was close to this top stroke facility,” he said. “And I was able to get there quickly, and that has allowed me to survive and to be now running a very successful campaign.”

The Democrat made two brief campaign appearances in August, raising questions about his stamina and whether he has fully recovered his communication skills. Mr. Fetterman said he is working to “improve my auditory processing and speech.”

He attended a mid-August fundraiser in the ultra-wealthy Hamptons in New York. A campaign spokesman told ABC News that Mr. Fetterman, who campaigns on his “regular guy” image, appeared in the posh summer playground “because his campaign needs to raise money to fight back against the unprecedented onslaught of attacks and negative ads from Dr. Oz and his rich friends.”

Fetterman campaign strategist Rebecca Katz said Mr. Fetterman’s “occasional issues he is having with auditory processing have no bearing on his ability to do the job as senator.”

“We are working to figure out what a fair debate would look like with the lingering impacts of the auditory processing in mind,” she told Politico. “John is healthy and fully capable of showing up and doing the work.”

Research on stroke survivors shows that “immediate medical attention, such as the treatment that Mr. Fetterman received, leads to better long-term outcomes,” said Suzanne Coyle, executive director of the Stroke Comeback Center in suburban Washington.

“Without working with Mr. Fetterman, it would be impossible to make a prediction about his ability or time frame to successfully return to a full work schedule,” she said. “This should be left to his team of physicians, physical and occupational therapists, and speech-language pathologists.”

After the stroke, Mr. Fetterman’s cardiologist issued a statement that essentially said his patient ignored warning signs over several years. Dr. Ramesh Chandra said Mr. Fetterman had undisclosed heart conditions and had not seen any doctor or taken his required medications since his first diagnosis in 2017.

“I first saw John in 2017,” wrote Dr. Chandra. “He was experiencing swelling in his feet and came to get it checked out. That is when I diagnosed him with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm, along with a decreased heart pump.”

He said he prescribed medications and improved diet and exercise and asked Mr. Fetterman to see him again in the following months.

“Instead, I did not see him again until [after the stroke],” Dr. Chandra said. “John did not go to any doctor for five years, and did not continue taking his medications.”

The doctor said he plans to see Mr. Fetterman again in mid-November “to monitor his progress.”

“The prognosis I can give for John’s heart is this: If he takes his medications, eats healthy and exercises, he’ll be fine,” Dr. Chandra wrote. “If he does what I’ve told him, and I do believe that he is taking his recovery and his health very seriously this time, he should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem.”

Said Mrs. Fetterman, “The doctors all said that he will make a full recovery and that he’s more than fit and in shape to do this, to take this on. I did save his life, and I will never let him forget that.”

• Dave Boyer can be reached at dboyer@washingtontimes.com.

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