By Jonathan Weisman and David Brown
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 18, 2008
Edward M. Kennedy, a liberal Democratic icon of the Senate and the surviving patriarch of American political royalty, suffered a seizure at his home in Hyannis Port, Mass., yesterday and was rushed by helicopter to Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston, hospital officials said.
The 76-year-old senior senator from Massachusetts was awake and joking with his family by late afternoon, according to a source close to the Kennedy family who spoke on the condition of anonymity. By early evening, he was watching a Boston Red Sox game and ordering dinner from Legal Seafood, the source said.
Larry Ronan, Kennedy's primary-care physician, released a statement saying Kennedy was "not in any immediate danger."
"Senator Kennedy will undergo further evaluation to determine the cause of the seizure, and a course of treatment will be determined at that time," Ronan's statement said.
Further information on his prognosis is not likely until Monday, said a spokeswoman, Stephanie Cutter.
Ominous early reports about Kennedy's strokelike symptoms elevated concerns, but the point became moot by afternoon. In his statement, Ronan said Kennedy had not suffered a stroke, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he had spoken with Kennedy's wife, Victoria, and gotten the same news.
Kennedy's condition was not life-threatening but was serious, Reid told reporters at the Nevada Democratic Convention in Reno. Victoria Reggie Kennedy told Reid the ailing senator "woke up fighting."
"The one thing I can say, if there ever was a fighter, anyone who stood for what we as Americans, we as Democrats, stand for, it's Ted Kennedy," Reid said.
First-time seizures in someone Kennedy's age can have many causes, including stroke, bleeding in the brain, tumors, alcohol withdrawal and severe derangements of bloodstream chemicals. Such seizures are not rare.
"Beyond childhood, the elderly years are actually the most common time to develop seizures," said Gregory L. Krauss, a neurologist and epilepsy specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital. "About half the time, it's linked to cerebrovascular disease, often without the person having a full stroke. Sometimes there is just a history of hypertension."
Kennedy, however, has had cerebrovascular disease. Last year, he underwent a procedure to widen a partially blocked left carotid artery, which supplies blood to much of the brain. The procedure is sometimes done preventively if the narrowing is severe enough; Kennedy's was described as "very high-grade" by his physician.
About one-fifth of people who have strokes also have a seizure at some point, Krauss said. They are "very common as evidence of prior injury. Some people can have had silent strokes that caused vascular injury and never know it."
A person having a seizure for the first time normally would be given a CAT scan of the head immediately to determine if there is bleeding, a tumor or swelling of the brain. Over the next 24 hours, most also would get an MRI scan, which often can reveal whether a stroke has occurred even in the absence of symptoms such as muscle weakness or language problems.
Most patients also are given anticonvulsant medicine for at least a few months, and often permanently, if doctors determine that they are at high risk for another seizure.
"In general, seizures in elderly persons are easy to treat. For him, the key thing is to make sure there is not some severe underlying cause," Krauss said.
Last August, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. suffered a seizure at his summer home in Maine, was rushed to a local hospital and was released two days later. Roberts had experienced a similar episode 14 years earlier.
According to the source close to the Kennedy family, Kennedy woke up feeling ill, then suffered the seizure. His family called 911 and rushed him to Cape Cod Hospital, where he was flown by helicopter to Massachusetts General. Doctors ruled out a stroke in the afternoon.
A family friend said Kennedy slumped at the breakfast table, where he felt disoriented and had some numbness in his face but experienced no paralysis or slurred speech. Doctors are exploring whether the episode is related to medications Kennedy has been taking since his surgery, the friend said.
Kennedy's sudden illness elicited an outpouring of sympathy from Republicans and Democrats alike, including all three of the remaining candidates for president. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whom Kennedy endorsed as the standard-bearer of President John F. Kennedy's legacy, said he spoke with the senator's wife.
"I have been in contact with the family. Obviously, they are in our thoughts and prayers," Obama said.
"Senator Kennedy's role in the U.S. Senate cannot be overstated. He is a legendary lawmaker," said McCain, who teamed with Kennedy on tobacco-control legislation and a comprehensive immigration law overhaul, both of which failed after difficult legislative struggles.
Kennedy was elected to the Senate in 1962, just two years after his brother, John F. Kennedy, was elected president and a year before his assassination.
He emerged as one of the Senate's most prolific legislators and successful dealmakers. He teamed with President Bush during Bush's first term to co-author the president's signature No Child Left Behind education legislation but broke dramatically with Bush over the invasion of Iraq and has been one of Bush's fiercest critics ever since.
His loss to then-President Jimmy Carter for the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination cemented his reputation as the champion of the party's liberal wing. Last August, he became only the third senator to have cast 15,000 votes.
Staff writers Matthew Mosk in Eugene, Ore., Shailagh Murray in Washington and special correspondent Judy Rakowsky in Boston contributed to this report.