Inside John Fetterman’s changing health scare story

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With five hours until the vote last month, John Fetterman’s Pennsylvania Senate campaign released a confusing day one statement: He would undergo surgery before the polls closed to install a pacemaker and defibrillator following his recent stroke.

“It was intended to be a brief procedure that would help protect his heart and address the underlying cause of his stroke, atrial fibrillation (A-Fib), by regulating his heart rate and rhythm,” the unsigned statement said from May 17th.

That phrase, which campaign advisers say was endorsed by the hospital, raised more questions than it answered. Although pacemakers are sometimes used to treat patients with A-fib — an irregular heartbeat caused by the upper chambers of the heart — devices containing defibrillators are not typically used.

“You would never use a defibrillator to treat atrial fibrillation,” said Christian Thomas Ruff, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and director of general cardiology at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “The defibrillator treats dangerous heart rhythms from the lower chambers of the heart.”

It would take 17 days for Fetterman’s campaign to explain the inconsistency. A letter from his cardiologist released Friday said the defibrillator had been installed to treat a previously undisclosed cardiomyopathy, first diagnosed in 2017, which reduced the amount of blood his heart could pump.

On May 17, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Lt. gov. John Fetterman (D), the Democratic Senate nominee on behalf of her husband. (Video: WTAE)

The fact that Fetterman, 52, and his campaign won the nomination without fully disclosing the extent of his physical ailments has raised concerns among Democrats that more bad news could come, potentially jeopardizing the party’s hopes of gaining control of to retain the Senate this fall. The politician, whose advisers have described him as an “authentic, straight-forward populist with no BS” – with a shaved head, gray goatee and Carhartt sweatshirts – now faces the challenge of explaining the confusion to voters.

Fetterman, currently Pennsylvania’s lieutenant governor, responded Friday with a more detailed written statement, clarifying that he “almost died” from the stroke, still hasn’t fully recovered and acknowledged the mistake, no prescribed to begin with Taking medication to treat his heart condition in 2017.

“I didn’t do what the doctor told me to do,” he wrote. “But I won’t make that mistake again.”

Fetterman says he “almost died” after ignoring his heart condition

His campaign advisers say they’ve worked to be as transparent as possible. According to an aide, Fetterman’s campaign only found out about the surgery on the morning of elementary school, and doctors never mentioned the separate heart condition at the time. Doctors described the defibrillator as “like an insurance policy,” the consultant said.

Lancaster General Hospital spokesmen did not respond to a request for comment on Saturday.

“We don’t have doctors on our campaign team,” said Rebecca Kirszner Katz, a senior adviser to the Fetterman campaign. “We learned about these conditions and explained them in real time.”

Concerns were compounded by the progress of his stroke recovery, after his wife Gisele described his situation on election night as “a little hiccup” and predicted her husband “would be back on his feet in no time”. The campaign adviser said the stroke was serious and Fetterman escaped serious repercussions largely due to his wife’s early intervention and his proximity to Lancaster Hospital, where he received prompt treatment.

His physical well-being has improved since the stroke.

“He runs a few miles a day,” Katz said.

However, he has still not appeared in public and his appearances on videos released by the campaign have shown him speaking only a few sentences at a time. His ability to conduct conversations quickly has not fully recovered, although he is improving and doctors still predict a full recovery.

Two Democratic political advisers — who, like others for this story, spoke on condition of anonymity to describe private conversations and a sensitive issue — feared the campaign’s handling of Fetterman’s health would undermine his image as an outspoken speaker.

“When you’re the godfather of transparency and social media and you go dark, people notice,” said a strategist who has long supported Fetterman. “It’s not like admitting a health problem would immediately prompt people to seek a replacement.”

Another Democratic adviser who hasn’t worked for any candidate in the Senate primary said the campaign’s disclosures of information have been “opaque” at best and “misleading” at worst, which “lets your imagination run wild a bit.” Fetterman meets Republican candidate Mehmet Oz, a retired cardiothoracic surgeon and television personality.

“There were so many red flags,” the adviser said in the days after Fetterman’s stroke, later adding, “If Oz and the Republicans were going to get involved somehow [health] Problem in a roundabout way, they would do it through the vote of confidence.

Republicans have already jumped on the issue. “Wow, @JohnFetterman starts his Senate campaign by lying about his health,” said Chris Hartline, communications director for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. tweeted on Friday.

David McCormick concedes to Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania Republican Senate primary

“While John Fetterman has won the trust of Pennsylvanians, Mehmet Oz is a con who will do, say, and sell anything to help himself,” replied David Bergstein, the Democratic Campaign Committee’s communications director.

Pennsylvania is the open Senate contest of the marquee of the mid-election cycle, offering Democrats their clearest opportunity to snag a seat following Sen. Patrick J. Toomey’s (R-Pa.) imminent resignation. His health challenges aside, Fetterman’s campaign got off to a strong start, winning each of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties in the recent four-way Democratic primary, with Rep. Conor Lamb (D-Pa.) taking a distant second place. According to the campaign, his share of the vote was 70 percent or more in 33 districts.

As the former mayor of the small town of Braddock, Pennsylvania, Fetterman has made a name for himself as a politician who can garner support beyond his party’s brand by making outspoken calls to legalize recreational marijuana, revitalize production communities, and eliminate the Senate filibuster done more.

Those close to Fetterman say one of the problems in his campaign has been his unease in speaking out about his own health problems or taking proper care of them, the candidate admitted in Friday’s statement.

“Like so many others, and especially many men, I avoided going to the doctor even though I knew I wasn’t feeling well,” he said.

It was a message some Democrats hope would appeal to the crossover voters Fetterman hopes to reach in November.

“Would I have liked to see more information from the campaign sooner? Yes. But in the end, you know, I don’t think it indicates the nature of the campaign [Fetterman] running,” said Democratic adviser Mike Mikus, who voted for Lamb in the primary. He said Fetterman looks “relatable” for admitting Friday that he missed taking his medication and disrespected his doctor.

“He is recovering well and following the doctor’s orders. I look forward to being on the campaign trail with him soon,” Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) said in a statement after having a Zoom call with Fetterman on Friday. “I’m not sure I’ve seen a candidate in recent history better prepared to serve the people of Pennsylvania.”

Alliance Cardiology’s Ramesh Chandra said in a statement Friday that he saw Fetterman in 2017 after experiencing swelling in his feet. “I diagnosed him with atrial fibrillation, an irregular heart rhythm, along with a decreased heart rate,” he wrote in the letter.

Fetterman – who is 6ft 8 inches tall – previously revealed that as of 2017 he had changed his diet and exercised more regularly, which resulted in significant weight loss. A June 2018 Pittsburgh Tribune-Review article reported that he had lost 148 pounds in one year after peaking at about 418 pounds.

“I was fat,” Fetterman said at the time. “It’s embarrassing to talk about.”

Several cardiologists said the description of a “decreased heart pump” was consistent with a diagnosis of cardiomyopathy, which Chandra says was the reason doctors in Lancaster decided to implant a pacemaker with a defibrillator. Cardiomyopathy is a disease of the heart muscle that makes it difficult for the organ to pump blood around the body, sometimes leading to swollen feet.

“There are two major reasons we implant defibrillators,” said Matthew Tomey, assistant professor of medicine and cardiology at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mt. Sinai. “One is for someone who has already gone into cardiac arrest. The other reason is primary prevention for people who have never had cardiac arrest but have risk factors.”

Tomey said recent pharmaceutical innovations have made cardiomyopathy a much more manageable condition than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Treatments are generally determined by a series of tests, including a measurement of the ejection fraction of the blood pumped out of the left ventricle and the CHA2DS2-VASc score, which takes into account age, diabetes, high blood pressure, vascular disease, and other factors.

Fetterman’s campaign did not release this data.

“The prognosis I can give for John’s heart is this: if he takes his medication, eats healthy and exercises, he will be fine,” Chandra wrote in the statement. “[H]We should be able to campaign and serve in the US Senate with ease.”

Annie Linskey contributed to this report.

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