Amid a sea of high-stakes policy issues — from crime to abortion, access to inflation — John Fetterman’s health has been a near-constant focus in the Pennsylvania Senate race since his stroke.
It’s been almost six months since the Democratic lieutenant governor suffered the stroke he says nearly killed him. During that time, Republicans questioned his ability to hold office, and his opponent, Mehmet Oz, pressed Fetterman to release more detailed medical records.
There’s a lot to unpack here at the intersection of modern medicine and electoral politics — especially if you’re just tuning in before you vote. But we’ve got you covered.
Here’s a rundown of everything we know about Fetterman’s health.
Fetterman, 52, suffered a stroke on Friday, May 13, just four days before the primary in which he defeated his Democratic rivals by more than 30 points.
The campaign announced that the lieutenant governor suffered a stroke on Sunday, May 15. They announced that he had a defibrillator and pacemaker implanted on the afternoon of the first day, stressing that he was “on the road to a full recovery”.
» READ MORE: John Fetterman gets defibrillator after stroke. But doctors say the campaign’s story “makes no sense”.
Fetterman’s wife, Giselle, noticed the telltale sign of the stroke in her husband – a droopy mouth – while they were out campaigning event on May 13. Fetterman’s family took him to the hospital, where doctors removed a blood clot in his brain in time to prevent any cognitive damage, according to the campaign.
The campaign said the stroke was the result of heart disease – a common, irregular rhythm called atrial fibrillation (A-fib). This is a common cause of strokes, according to medical experts.
Fetterman’s medical problems date back to at least 2017, according to the campaign. He had swollen legs — a possible sign of A-fib — and was later diagnosed with an irregular heart rhythm. The condition, which can be hereditary, runs in his family.
Fetterman, who is 6 feet 8 inches and previously weighed 400 pounds, said he lost nearly 150 pounds by 2018.
Recovering from his home in Braddock, Fetterman dodged detailed questions about his health in the early days after his stroke and resounding primary victory. Medical experts question whether the candidate had another heart condition that his campaign did not disclose.
Fetterman later said the stroke almost killed him and thanked his wife for catching the signs so he could seek treatment quickly. He also said he was lucky to be campaigning so close to a hospital with a major stroke center.
Experts largely agree that timely removal of a blood clot and implantation of a defibrillator are very effective treatments for stroke victims.
Fetterman hasn’t done any major public campaigning in nearly three months, sticking mostly to small gatherings and closed-door fundraisers. His absence from the trail left him open to criticism from Oz that he was avoiding voters due to health issues.
Instead of election events, Fetterman ramped up his campaign on social media, frequently launching viral attacks on his opponent’s ties to New Jersey, various campaign missteps and allegations about his medical practices as a celebrity doctor.
Fetterman held his first post-stroke rally in August in Erie, where his wife introduced him as a “stroke survivor.” He significantly increased his public activity on the eve of election day.
» READ MORE: Why John Fetterman chose Erie for his first major rally since the stroke that nearly killed him
Oz and other Republicans have raised questions about Fetterman’s health and the transparency of his campaign, calling on Fetterman to release his full medical records.
Fetterman’s campaign declined to provide those full records or to make his doctors available to reporters.
The campaign released a letter from Fetterman’s cardiologist in June saying he was able to continue campaigning with his defibrillator pacemaker.
“The prognosis I can give for John’s heart is this: if he takes his meds, eats healthy and exercises, he will be fine,” wrote Ramesh Chandra of Alliance Cardiology.
Fetterman also released the results of cognitive tests that showed his brain was functioning at normal levels for his age, although some experts said those tests alone were not enough to determine his ability to work.
In another letter released last month, Fetterman’s primary physician, Clifford Chen, a physician at UPMC at Duquesne, wrote that Fetterman is in good health: clear lungs, normal heart rate and no signs of weakened strength. Chen said he has been in contact with Fetterman’s cardiologist and neurologist and that Fetterman has shown no cognitive impairment.
But Chen noted Fetterman’s lingering difficulties with auditory processing, a condition that, while common in stroke victims, continued to garner attention in the final weeks of the campaign.
Chen, who according to campaign finance records is a frequent donor to the Democratic Party, gave $500 to Fetterman’s campaign this year.
» READ MORE: John Fetterman is in good health, his doctor says in new medical report
Communication challenges are common in stroke survivors. Sometimes a stroke can affect all four basic language functions – reading, writing, listening and understanding.
Fetterman said he was dealing with auditory processing challenges. Although the term auditory is related to hearing, auditory processing problems are related to how the brain interprets language and are not a cognitive problem.
Fetterman occasionally has difficulty retrieving certain words as well as processing words, especially in noisy environments, he said. He used closed captioning in interviews and during the debate to ensure he could follow the conversation.
Rehabilitation specialists said routine physical therapy — such as practicing ways to describe a stuck word or come up with an alternative — is effective in retraining the brains of stroke victims. Experts said some victims make the greatest strides in their recovery with communication problems in the first six months to a year after a stroke, but some patients take years to recover.
» READ MORE: What are auditory processing problems and how are they treated?
During interviews with news outlets, including The Inquirer, Fetterman has used closed captioning or real-time captioning to ensure he understood the questions being asked.
Some outlets took heat for making his auditory processing issues a major focus of interviews. Republicans continue to seize on his glaring mistakes — especially during the only televised debate with Oz — to cast doubt on his mental and physical fitness.
Fetterman, for his part, has been open about his ongoing speech problems and has tried to use his public recovery to connect with voters.
» READ MORE: John Fetterman has lingering speech problems after stroke. What is the impact on his Senate bid?
—Staff writers Julia Terrusso, Jonathan Tamari, Abraham Gutman, Tom Avril, Aubrey Whalen and Sean Collins Walsh contributed to the reporting that informs this article.