By MARC LEVY and STEVE PEOPLES
HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman, the leading Democrat in the state’s high-profile Senate contest, suffered a stroke just days before the primary election but was on his way to a “full recovery,” his campaign said on Sunday.
The 52-year-old Fetterman, who confirmed that he had been hospitalized all weekend, insisted the health emergency wasn’t slowing his campaign. But the stunning revelation, two days before Pennsylvania’s primary, created a cloud of uncertainty over the Democratic front-runner’s candidacy in what may be one of the party’s best Senate pickup opportunities.
“Feeling good, all things considered,” Fetterman said in a text message to The Associated Press.
On Friday morning, before Fetterman was to appear at a scheduled campaign event at Millersville University, Fetterman’s wife, Gisele, “noticed that John was not himself, and shortly after he started slurring his speech and he was taken to the hospital,” a campaign spokesperson said.
In a 16-second video released by his campaign, a seated Fetterman, speaking clearly, explained that he “just wasn’t feeling very well” on Friday and decided to go to the hospital at the urging of his wife. He detailed the situation further in a written statement.
“I had a stroke that was caused by a clot from my heart being in an A-fib rhythm for too long,” Fetterman said. He said the doctors were able to remove the clot, “reversing the stroke,” and got his heart under control.
“The good news is I’m feeling much better, and the doctors tell me I didn’t suffer any cognitive damage,” he said in the statement.
Questions about Fetterman’s health swirled throughout the weekend after he canceled scheduled public appearances Friday, Saturday and Sunday. His campaign cited a health issue but was not specific until Sunday.
His campaign explained the delay in disclosing it publicly by saying Fetterman’s condition was “evolving in real time since Friday. We wanted to put out something once we had a clearer picture of his health.”
Fetterman did not say how much longer he would be in the hospital.
“They’re keeping me here for now for observation, but I should be out of here sometime soon,” he said in the statement. “The doctors have assured me that I’ll be able to get back on the trail, but first I need to take a minute, get some rest, and recover.”
Fetterman’s future treatment regimen is still being worked out, but will include a healthier diet, in addition to rest, a campaign spokesperson said.
Democrats see the race to replace Pennsylvania’s retiring Republican Sen. Pat Toomey as one of their best opportunities pick up a Senate seat this fall. Voters will decide the general election nominees for both parties on Tuesday.
The GOP primary features celebrity heart surgeon Mehmet Oz, former hedge fund executive David McCormick and conservative commentator Kathy Barnette, among others. Democrats are picking from a four-person field that includes Fetterman, three-term U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and state Rep. Malcolm Kenyatta.
Thousands of early votes have already been cast.
Fetterman is the strong Democratic favorite. He has led in polls and fundraising from the start, even as the party’s establishment rallied around Lamb. Despite such support, Lamb struggled to reach voters or even pierce Fetterman’s standing with primary voters.
Lamb tweeted that he was conducting a television interview when he learned of Fetterman’s stroke.
“Hayley and I are keeping John and his family in our prayers and wishing him a full and speedy recovery,” Lamb wrote.
Kenyatta called Fetterman “an incredible family man.” “My prayers are with him and his family as he recovers from this stroke,” he tweeted. “I look forward to seeing him back on the campaign trail soon.”
And on the Republican side, Oz noted that he has experience treating Fetterman’s condition.
“I have cared for atrial fibrillation patients and witnessed the miracles of modern medicine in the treatment of strokes, so I am thankful that you received care so quickly,” Oz tweeted. “My whole family is praying for your speedy recovery.”
Fetterman’s heart condition, atrial fibrillation, occurs when the heart’s top chambers, called the atria, get out of sync with the bottom chambers’ pumping action. Sometimes patients feel a flutter or a racing heart, but many times they’re not aware of an episode.
A-fib is most common in older adults, and other risks include high blood pressure or a family history of arrhythmias. It causes 130,000 deaths and 750,000 hospitalizations a year in the U.S.
Fetterman, who is 6-foot-8, has been open about his push to lose weight in the past. He weighed in at over 400 pounds before losing nearly 150 pounds in 2018.
His imposing stature has been a big part of his political appeal.
The former western Pennsylvania mayor has tattoos down his arms, a clean-shaven head and a goatee. He curses on social media and wears shorts practically everywhere, even in the winter.
He vowed to press forward on Sunday despite the health setback.
“Our campaign isn’t slowing down one bit, and we are still on track to win this primary on Tuesday, and flip this Senate seat in November,” he said. “Thanks for all the support, and please get out there and vote.”
Peoples reported from New York.