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Should voters be concerned over Fetterman's cognitive ability after his stroke?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There has been a lot of talk lately about John Fetterman's mental fitness. The Pennsylvania lieutenant governor has been dealing with auditory processing issues after surviving a stroke five months ago in the middle of his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat in Pennsylvania, a fact that Fetterman openly addressed during last night's debate against his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOHN FETTERMAN: And let's also talk about the elephant in the room. I had a stroke. He's never let me forget that.

CHANG: Dr. Dhruv Khullar is a practicing physician at Weill Cornell and a contributing writer for The New Yorker. He joins us now. Welcome.

DHRUV KHULLAR: Thanks so much for having me.

CHANG: So you wrote about Fetterman for The New Yorker, and it does seem like, to you, he has mostly recovered as far as you can observe from a distance. And obviously, a stroke is something that can be extremely dangerous. But Fetterman, you know, he's back on the campaign trail. He's doing debates. He's doing interviews. Can you just sort of summarize for us some of the most apparent symptoms he still seems to be coping with?

KHULLAR: So there's no question that he's recovered significantly over the past four or five months since he had the stroke. But, you know, as was obvious to anyone watching the debate yesterday and who've seen him on the campaign trail over the past couple of weeks, he still has some deficits. He has difficulty finding the right word or pronouncing the right word. And he also has auditory processing issues. And so he's not able to always hear words as clearly as he used to be able to. And he uses closed captioning to kind of read the words and then respond as he can.

CHANG: Right. But just to be clear, in terms of his, like, cognitive abilities, his ability to think, to make decisions, those abilities don't seem to be impaired, right?

KHULLAR: Yeah. As a doctor, you know, you never want to weigh in on someone that you haven't personally examined. But as far as we can tell, his intellectual abilities remain intact.

CHANG: There have been some calls for his campaign - for him, Fetterman - to release detailed medical records. Can I just ask, what are the risks for Fetterman if he were to release more medical records or detailed medical records?

KHULLAR: You know, what's important to recognize is that I think some of Fetterman's supporters would probably say, you know, it's unreasonable to be asking these questions about his health. And I don't think that's entirely true. Anytime someone has a significant medical issue, particularly neurologic issue, it's reasonable to ask for more information about people's health. And sometimes that takes the form of asking for a release of medical records.

On the other hand, you know, often these type of data, these type of information, medical records, they can be used as kind of political weapons in the midst of a campaign. And they're not always given the appropriate context. It's difficult for people to understand them. And people - you know, political operatives can sometimes use those things to sow doubts and biases in the electorate. And so my view really is that, you know, showing up for the debate and putting himself out there and letting people observe, you know, his performance is really the best marker of how he will go about conducting his job if he is elected to the U.S. Senate.

CHANG: Yeah. I hear what you're saying about, you know, if someone has suffered potential damage to their brain, they should face questions about the extent of that damage if they're running for office because it could affect their suitability for office. Do you think there is more leeway to make digs, to ask aggressive questions about, say, a stroke compared to aggressive questions about someone's ability to hear, their ability to walk or other disabilities that a candidate may have?

KHULLAR: You know, I think there is. I mean, I think, you know, at a fundamental level, you never want to engage in ableism and kind of raise questions about whether someone's disability somehow disqualifies them from holding office. But the closer that a deficit gets to kind of the neurologic system or certainly your cognitive abilities, the more reasonable it is to start to ask questions about, will that affect your ability to carry out the job? And again, you know, I think one's conduct on the campaign trail, one's ability to respond to questions and concerns of voters, those are the types of things that are going to be most relevant for his ability to carry out the job as opposed to some hidden detail somewhere in the medical record. That I think is actually a fool's errand.

CHANG: Yeah. That is Dr. Dhruv Khullar, who writes for The New Yorker. Thank you very much for joining us.

KHULLAR: Thanks so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Megan Lim
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.