Tough flu season taxes Va. lawmakers; doctor-legislators go to the aid of both parties

RICHMOND — Splayed out on the couch in his Capitol Square office, Sen. William M. Stanley coughed and wheezed and gasped for breath as he tried to talk school reform with the governor’s top legislative lobbyist.

The worried lobbyist whisked him to the hospital Friday night, where doctors diagnosed double pneumonia and prescribed two things: antibiotics and bed rest. Come Monday, Stanley (R-Franklin) was taking his medicine, but taking it at his desk in the Senate, afraid to miss a vote in the evenly divided chamber as the 45-day General Assembly session entered its last week.

Graphic

The Centers for Disease Control measures the level of flu-like illness in each state. This map shows the flu rates each week of the season, which lasts from October to March.
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The Centers for Disease Control measures the level of flu-like illness in each state. This map shows the flu rates each week of the season, which lasts from October to March.

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The flu clobbered the commonwealth this year, and glad-handing, germ-swapping politicians have turned Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol into a stately petri dish, where midwinter contagion has sickened scores of legislators. Yet even the most peaked lawmakers say they can’t afford to miss a single vote in the frenzied homestretch.

“Almost no matter what, you’ve got to try to be here every day,” said Stanley’s seat mate, Sen. Jeffrey L. McWaters (R-Virginia Beach), who tries to ward off disease with hand sanitizer. “This time of year, we’ve got all these bills coming across, and some of them are 20-20 votes.”

That’s particularly true in a year when Republicans used the Inauguration Day absence of one Democrat to slip a surprise redistricting plan through the Senate. Neither chamber permits voting by proxy. So as they push to complete work by Saturday on a hotly contested transportation funding overhaul, state budget amendments and public school reform, sniffling, sneezing and even feverish legislators will be on the job — some limping along with help from the four doctors who happen to be members of the General Assembly.

“Even if I have to have somebody on a gurney, okay, and me pushing the button for them, we’ll have 20 votes,” Senate Minority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said.

The 2012-13 flu season has been one of the worst in years, and rates in Virginia were among the highest in the nation when the session convened last month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Doctors in the General Assembly have been called on to help more than the usual number of ailing colleagues.

“It was pretty bad the first few weeks,” said Sen. Ralph S. Northam (D-Norfolk), one of the doctors. “I helped a few people, and then the word got around that they got better, and then more people came. It’s probably about one person a day.”

It doesn’t help that Virginia’s legislative session is among the nation’s shortest and most intense. Lawmaking for 8 million people gets crammed into 60 or 45 days, depending on the year, making for lots of early-morning committee meetings and late-night deliberations to wear down immune systems.

“Just like in the Civil War, they would take farm boys off the farm, where they were in their own protected sort of realm, and then would put them in these large congregate areas with, you know, hundreds to thousands of men, and horses, and all of the contamination issues thereinto associated,” said Del. T. Scott Garrett (R-Lynchburg). “You still see a lot of the same issues when folks are congregating here. When they leave their home settings, all of a sudden they’re exposed to a lot of people’s germs. You’re constantly shaking hands with folks.”

Garrett, a retired surgeon and a Civil War medicine buff, has a glass display case in his legislative office filled with 19th-century surgical implements, including knives that seem better suited to cutting steak. He also has a few modern tools on hand for ailing lawmakers and Capitol staff members, who turn to him for medical advice and the occasional prescription.

With stethoscope and blood pressure cuff, he has encountered some emergencies. He sent a lobbyist and a legislator straight to the hospital, one with a racing pulse, the other with a pulse that was dangerously low.

Usually people consult Garrett on the little things that make it hard for them to trudge on with the work of the session. When the fluffy end of a cotton swab fell off inside the ear of a staffer, the steady-handed veteran of 13,000 surgeries fished it out with a tool he fashioned from a paper clip.

The General Assembly’s three other doctor-legislators also get hit up for help — often for medical issues outside their area of expertise.

Northam is a pediatric neurologist. But this session, he has been specializing in the common cold and flu, with a little emergency medicine and orthodontics in the mix. When an elderly man fell in the Senate gallery and got a bad cut on his forehead, Northam dashed up from the floor to attend to him. He also lent a hand to a Capitol page who had a wire from her braces sticking into her gums.

“Whether you have expertise in that area or not, people are going to look to you,” said Del. John M. O’Bannon III (R-Henrico), also a neurologist. “We’re kind of on-call.”

Despite the partisan tensions in the evenly divided Senate, Northam helps legislators on both sides of the aisle keep healthy. The Democrat recently helped George Goodwin, legislative adviser to Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Louisa), get through the flu.

“We both graduated from VMI,” Goodwin said, “and that transcends politics.”

Saslaw called Northam “a miracle worker” after the doctor prescribed antibiotics and nasal spray for a nagging sinus infection. “We’d probably have a hard time getting a quorum each day if it wasn’t for Ralph,” Saslaw said.

Because legislators and their staffs are often pressed for time and are often many hours from their regular doctors, the General Assembly provides a free clinic in their office building during the session. Many make use of the clinic when they’re not turning to doctor-legislators — all of them “Doc” to House and Senate colleagues — for care.

Del. Christopher P. Stolle (R-Virginia Beach), an obstetrician-gynecologist, showed up at the clinic early in the session and talked the staff there into giving him antibiotics to keep his runny nose to the legislative grindstone.

“I was sick the first week here,” he said. “And I went down there and said, ‘I know this is viral, but I’ve got to be able to talk.’ ”

 
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