Is John Fetterman covering up the extent of his health crisis?

AP Photo/Marc Levy

Credit where it’s due: The Times seems to have the goods here. And the man in their crosshairs is the Great Democratic Hope, the burly hardscrabble left-winger who’s supposedly going to turn rural Pennsylvania socialist this fall through the sheer force of his populist authenticity.


Dems were expecting to him to hit the campaign trail hard. His slogan is “Every County, Every Vote,” reflecting his commitment to compete even in the state’s Trumpier areas this fall. “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,” says WaPo, but the timetable for a full recovery is typically six to eight weeks. Ever since he suffered what appeared to be a minor stroke shortly before the primary, his wife and his team have insisted that he’ll be good as new before you know it, ready to take on the world.

There’s no salacious discovery in the Times piece that disproves that, just some informed conjecture by a series of doctors the Times spoke to about two key details which the Fetterman camp has shared about his condition. One is that his stroke was caused, allegedly, by an atrial fibrillation (“A-fib”) that led to a clot forming. Doctors installed a pacemaker with a defibrillator to treat that. The other, according to his wife, was that hospital staff removed the clot via a procedure that involved an incision in Fetterman’s groin.

None of that adds up to a minor stroke caused exclusively by A-fib, experts told the Times.

Dr. Elaine Wan, an associate professor of medicine in cardiology and cardiac electrophysiology at Columbia University Medical Center, said defibrillators — which always come with pacemakers — are used to prevent sudden death. They usually are implanted in people with weakened heart muscle, or those who survived an episode in which the heart stopped, or in people with a genetic predisposition for sudden cardiac death…

Dr. Rajat Deo, an associate professor of medicine and a cardiac electrophysiologist at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, agreed about the use of defibrillators and said he shared Dr. Wan’s suspicion that Mr. Fetterman has a damaged heart.


“He is at risk for sudden cardiac death. For someone on the campaign trail that might raise concerns,” Wan said, starkly.

As for the incision in the groin, that sounded to the Times’s experts like a thrombectomy “in which doctors slide a small plastic tube through the groin, advance it into the brain and then pull the blood clot out using suction or a wire mesh.” You don’t do that for minor strokes:

Dr. Lee Schwamm, a stroke specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, said doctors do a thrombectomy only when a large artery in the brain is blocked

“These strokes tend to be very severe,” Dr. Schwamm said. “He is fortunate that he went to a hospital that could treat it.”

Deo agreed that it sounds like there are two separate issues plaguing Fetterman, one possibly A-fib and the other some sort of underlying heart damage. The good news for him is that Deo also thinks he can continue his campaign with proper care and state-of-the-art treatments available. The bad news is the prospect of, ah, “sudden cardiac death.”

Not coincidentally, Team Fetterman hasn’t made anyone available to discuss the candidate’s condition in detail. No doctors, no spokesmen, nada. They’re lying low here, no doubt hoping that the eventual Republican nominee won’t make an issue of it. (Candidates on both sides were quick to wish Fetterman well after news of his stroke.) But an Oz/Fetterman match-up would be intriguing in that respect. Not only is Oz a medical doctor, he’s a cardiothoracic surgeon by practice. He’d be uniquely qualified to accuse Fetterman of hiding something about his condition. How would it play with voters if he did?


Would it make them view Fetterman suspiciously, fearing that he’s hiding something from them? Or would it make them view Fetterman sympathetically and Oz skeptically? Some might consider it unethical for Oz to “diagnose” a patient he hasn’t treated personally, even though he wouldn’t truly be diagnosing him.

The fact that the GOP primary is momentarily frozen as Oz and Dave McCormick wait for the final ballots to be counted is a small godsend for Fetterman, preventing the Republicans from getting a head start on the general election campaign while he recuperates. Candidates have until mid-August to withdraw from the election, more than enough time for Fetterman to see if he’s able to get back up to speed. (Imagine if the stroke had happened on August 1.) Assuming that he is, the election will likely have less to do with his health than with a test of strength between two issues. You’re already well acquainted with one of them:

Baaaaad vibes for any Democrat on the ballot this fall. On the other hand, Fetterman is well-known for supporting marijuana legalization, which may have been his secret weapon in building support in the primary and may yet be a weapon in turning out younger voters in November. Notably, Oz opposes legalization, which puts him on the wrong side of a sizable majority in Pennsylvania. Maybe his medical pedigree will soften the electoral blow from that stance but being on the wrong side of a 60 percent issue is also a bad place to be. Here he is recently delivering his “just say no” pitch.


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