Tuesday night brought back a host of memories for me.
Watching the debate between Pennsylvania U.S. Senate candidates proved painful to
me on Tuesday night. Not because I have secret Pennsylvania voter affiliation. Not
because the race could be pivotal to control of the Senate.
It was painful because watching John Fetterman struggle to find words and command
his mouth to speak the words in his mouth, it reminded me of a time I faced the same
Fetterman suffered a stroke in May. It affected his ability to process language and
The fancy medical term generally used for this difficulty is aphasia. I know because I spent a year of my life carrying a card in my wallet that I could pull out and give to someone when I had trouble speaking. In a few brief sentences it let that person know that I had aphasia and while it did not affect my intelligence, I might have difficulty expressing myself.
I laminated my card and carried it around for years, even after I did not need it. It served
as a reminder to appreciate every day I have been given in my life. I did not need to be
perfect, I just needed to be appreciative.
My aphasia resulted from massive infections in my brain, both meningitis and encephalitis. I wrote about my experience a few months ago after watching Lady Gaga assist Liza Minnelli, whose health deteriorated after her own bout with encephalitis, on stage at the Oscars.
As I wrote then, the effects on my language skills were profound: “While I knew what I
wanted to say, the only thing that came out of my mouth were garbled slurs. I sounded
blackout drunk … I could read the word ‘Emergency’ on the door, but by the time I got to
the end of the word I had forgotten the beginning. Could tell anyone who asked that the
metal spigots on the ceiling were to put out fires, but I had no idea what they were
It took me more than a year to feel some semblance of “normal,” though I still suffer
some minor effects to this day (e.g. names can elude me and I mispronounce words
It did not stop me from attending law school, winning arguments before the Colorado
Supreme Court, and becoming an award-winning columnist. With time and effort and
understanding, I rewired the communication centers in my brain.
I cannot imagine how Fetterman took the stage on Tuesday, just over five months from a similar brain trauma. His answers were at times sluggish as he missed words, paused and spoke in a halting manner, struggling to speak the words his mind thought.
To me, it is a miracle he was out there at all. For more than 20 years I have prepped politicians for debates and watched many struggle more than Fetterman did on Tuesday night. Even his opponent, Mehmet Oz, let slip an oratorical blunder, calling for abortion to be between “women, doctors” and “local political leaders.”
I am sure that doozy is stuck on replay in commercials airing in Pennsylvania.
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Unfortunately, speech and political prowess have been interlinked for thousands of years. So it is not surprising to see Fetterman’s once-substantial lead slipping. In fact, if polls underestimate Oz as badly as they did GOP candidates in 2016 and 2020, Oz may already be leading.
Several stroke survivors and organizations have attempted to educate the public and disassociate aphasia and communication challenges from cognitive processing and the ability to think.
Unfortunately, it is a complex argument that does not always resonate with the first reaction people have when hearing strained speech like Fetterman displayed.
Pennsylvanians have a stark choice to make on Election Day. I just hope it won’t be
based solely on a speech struggle that has nothing to do with intellectual ability. That
would be another painful reminder for me.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq.
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