John Fetterman’s Stroke Shines New Light on PA’s Senate Race

Ali Feldman |

By Ali Feldman, MS, CCC-SLP, Federal Organizing Associate at the PA Budget & Policy Center

The Pennsylvania Senate Debate cast Democrat John Fetterman and Republican Mehmet Oz in vastly different lights. The debate exposed Fetterman’s courage while it cast a dark shadow on celebrity doctor Oz’s heartlessness.

As a speech therapist, I worked with stroke survivors like Fetterman for almost 20 years. Recovery takes grit, and Fetterman certainly has it. But, unlike most stroke survivors, Fetterman does not have the luxuries of privacy, structure, or even the comfort of recovering in his own home. Rather, Fetterman is running to win one of the most consequential Senate races in the country. He is in the national spotlight, managing a stressful, fast-paced schedule and crisscrossing 67 counties to rally voters, raise money, and restore faith in our political system. All the while, he continues to make strides with speech therapy. Fetterman’s very public recovery is inspiring, especially for those who have survived a stroke or similar setback.

For example, Ben Marritt, 39, has residual neurological fatigue and a stutter from a stroke at the age of 32. He said that he sees Fetterman as “a role model of what’s possible, and a kindred spirit.” Luke Visconti, who had a stroke at 54, said that he watched the debate with “great pride and admiration.” He continued, “It was a courageous example of a person rising above an obstacle in his path, willing to suffer indignities from people trying to take advantage of his disability as well as simply cruel and ignorant people.” 

Fetterman could have walked away from this race to focus on himself, his health, and his family. But he didn’t. He’s staying the course and feels even more connected and committed to fighting for the people he hopes to represent in the US Senate. In an exclusive interview with Joy Reid after the debate, Fetterman said, I always thought I was empathetic before the stroke. I now really understand much more the kind of challenges Americans have day in, day out.” He also builds solidarity at the start of many rallies by asking, “How many of you have had your own personal health challenges?” Most hands go up. These voters get Fetterman and he is feeling them, too.

While Fetterman is rising up as a beacon of strength and hope, his opponent, celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz, and Republican leaders are going low. Physicians and aspiring leaders are expected to treat others with kindness, respect, and dignity, no matter their background, abilities, or circumstances. However, Oz, Republican National Committee chairwoman Ronna McDaniel, and the GOP have weaponized Fetterman’s stroke and they’re using it to unapologetically hurl derisive and offensive attacks at him. For example, Rachel Tripp, Oz’s senior communications adviser, chided, If John Fetterman had ever eaten a vegetable in his life, then maybe he wouldn’t have had a major stroke and wouldn’t be in the position of having to lie about it constantly.” And even though Oz and his cronies are taking aim at Fetterman, their shots are hitting voters of every stripe. People with disabilities have become unwitting victims of Oz and the GOP’s mockery and shaming since Fetterman’s stroke. Judith Hannah Weiss, an author who has aphasia (a language disorder caused by damage in a specific area of the brain) writes, “It’s been a tough road for me, and the attacks on Fetterman bring back some of the pain.”

Physicians like Benjamin Abella, director of the Center for Resuscitation Science at the University of Pennsylvania and a professor in emergency medicine are also questioning Oz’s decency. Abella asks, “Who amongst us do not have family members who’ve had strokes, heart attacks, cancer, or other medical conditions?” Abella asked, “Do we shame them? What’s wrong with these people?” Abella added, “Mehmet Oz is degrading himself and insulting the work he purports to do as a physician by saying that John Fetterman is not able….” Likewise, Dr. Val Arkoosh said, “No real doctor, or any decent human being, to be honest, would ever mock a stroke victim who is recovering from that stroke, in the way that Dr. Oz is mocking John Fetterman.”

Sudden medical events bring out the best and worst in people, and Fetterman’s stroke is no exception. However, the timing of his stroke and recovery during a contentious U.S. Senate race provided voters with a unique opportunity to see Fetterman and Oz in full view with their true colors on display.

The stakes of the PA Senate race are high and the contrast between the candidates is stark. How will Fetterman’s stroke and recovery impact voters and the outcome of the election? 

Voters will decide.