The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Recovering from a stroke, Fetterman finds his Senate campaign in limbo

The Democrat has been sidelined for nearly two weeks from one of this year’s most consequential races

John Fetterman, lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and Democratic candidate for Senate, speaks in a recorded message during a primary election night event in Pittsburgh on May 17. (Justin Merriman/Bloomberg News)
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Pennsylvania Democrat John Fetterman has been sidelined for nearly two weeks after suffering a stroke that has left him without a set date to return to the campaign trail in one of the year’s most consequential Senate races.

Fetterman’s wife, Gisele Fetterman, said in an interview with The Washington Post on Monday that her husband has no set timeline, noting that he has a follow-up appointment with his doctor later this week. She said she had been told previously by the doctor that “he’ll make a full recovery” and “be able to do everything he did before and then some.”

But for now, John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania and Democratic nominee for Senate, is resting at their home in Braddock, Pa., she said, and can’t lift heavy objects. She said she has taken possession of her husband’s phone so he can focus on his recovery. On Tuesday, she posted a video of her family in their backyard, Fetterman on an Adirondack rocking chair rubbing his hands together in front of a Solo Stove fire.

The uncertainty surrounding Fetterman’s return has national implications. Officials in both parties regard Pennsylvania as a pivotal state in the battle for control of the Senate. But, a week after the primary, the contest is effectively at a standstill.

Republicans have also been unable to fully pivot to the general election, as a close race between former television personality and heart surgeon Mehmet Oz and ex-hedge fund chief executive David McCormick is headed to an almost-certain recount and a potentially protracted legal battle over which ballots should be counted.

Privately, Democrats said that although they do not know how long Fetterman will be sidelined, they feel they are not yet at any disadvantage because the GOP primary has been left unresolved.

Fetterman, 52, who won the Democratic nomination from his hospital bed last week by an overwhelming 60 percentage points, was released from the hospital Sunday, according to his campaign, nine days after he checked in May 13.

In the run-up to the November election, Fetterman faces a grueling election requiring travel across a vast, populous state. No one has put a timetable on how quickly Fetterman could recover and begin running the type of race he has said he wants to, pledging to visit all 67 counties and fight for votes in the remote rural areas that some Democrats have surrendered politically.

Fetterman has built a political identity rooted heavily in his predilection for retail politics. He stands nearly 6-foot-9, with a shaved head, goatee and tattooed arms, giving him a distinctive presence. At his events, he seeks to be relatable, wearing oversized hoodies and gym shorts, and speaking directly to voters about their fears and frustrations. With a wide grin, Fetterman will pose for selfies with everyone who asks.

Toward the end of a highly successful primary run, Fetterman canceled his scheduled campaign events May 14, the Saturday before the primary. The next day, his campaign revealed publicly that he had suffered a stroke “caused by a clot from my heart being in an A-fib rhythm for too long.” The doctors worked to “quickly and completely remove the clot, reversing the stroke, they got my heart under control as well,” Fetterman said in the statement released by his campaign.

Gisele Fetterman said she had noticed his mouth droop for just a moment, and over his objections that he was fine, they went to the nearest hospital in Lancaster, Pa.

“He was like, ‘I feel totally fine, I feel great.’ And I was like, ‘No we’re going,’ ” she told The Post.

The Fetterman campaign did not grant requests to speak with Fetterman’s doctor or review his medical records.

Atrial fibrillation, when the heart’s top chambers are out of sync with the bottom chambers, is a common heart issue that affects more than 5 million adults and leads to 750,000 hospitalizations and 130,000 deaths each year in the United States. Some patients may notice a flutter or racing feeling, while others notice nothing at all. The irregular heart pattern is a major risk factor for stroke, and when patients can get to the hospital quickly, the clots that cause the strokes can be dissolved.

A-fib can lead to what’s known as a cardioembolic stroke, in which a blood clot flies from the heart to the brain, but also smaller strokes, as well as ones that cause bleeding in or around the brain.

The prognosis for a patient varies from a quick recovery to one that will have long-lasting or permanent impact on daily aspects of life such as speech and walking, depending on how long the clot was blocking the artery, the size of the clot and whether there was bleeding.

“It is important to recognize that while A-fib is a risk factor for stroke, this encompasses multiple types of stroke,” said Matthew Tomey, a cardiologist at Mount Sinai Morningside.

Tomey said heart-monitoring devices, including ones that are external and those that are implanted, “have provided a big step forward in our ability to detect A-fib” and prevent strokes.

The day of the primary, the campaign announced that Fetterman would “undergo a standard procedure to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator.”

Recovery from such a procedure varies based on the individual and the specific device. In general, there are early restrictions on certain types of movement and lifting of weight, Tomey said. Depending on the nature of a person’s work, many individuals can get back to work relatively quickly. Full activity is usually possible within six to eight weeks.

On Sunday, Fetterman’s campaign shared a six-second clip posted on Twitter by his wife that showed a noticeably thinner Fetterman walking gingerly down a ramp leaving the hospital. He flashed a double thumbs up and said, “Hey, everyone.”

Gisele Fetterman said she’ll know more about her husband’s plans after they meet with a doctor in Lancaster at the end of the week. She said she has been told by his doctor that her husband will have “a long, healthy life.”

In Washington, Democrats have taken the official position that everything will be okay with John Fetterman’s health over the long haul.

“His wife was in great spirits and excited to begin the campaign, and confident that he will be out on the campaign trail soon, once the doctors give him the go-ahead,” Sen. Gary Peters (Mich.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, told reporters Wednesday, the day after Fetterman won the primary.

At that point, Peters had not yet spoken to the nominee since the stroke five days earlier. President Biden has called Fetterman at least twice since last week to offer his congratulations and well-wishes but did not reach him, and the two men have still not connected.

Pennsylvania law gives party nominees until Aug. 15 to withdraw from a general election. In addition, should Fetterman’s health decline and he need to be replaced on the ballot, the executive committee of the state’s Democratic Party would meet to pick the backup nominee within 30 days of Fetterman’s withdrawal, according to party bylaws.

But T.J. Rooney, former chairman of the Pennsylvania Democrats and a supporter of Fetterman, said “of all the things I’m worried about, that is the least.”

In late January, Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-N.M.) suffered a stroke in which he did not get to the hospital in time to break open the blood clot, leading to a surgery in which doctors removed a portion of his skull.

Lujan missed five weeks of work in the Senate and was able to ease back into the movement of the chamber without having to worry about running a full-scale campaign in a key Senate race.