On July 26th, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell suddenly stopped speaking during a Republican leadership news conference. He appeared to freeze, went silent and was escorted away. When I read the story, I thought, “sounds a lot like a small seizure.” My second thought was that maybe the experience could teach McConnell a valuable lesson about losing control over one’s body.
I can speculate about seizures, as I had thousands of them prior to a 2014 elective brain surgery for my epilepsy. Within days, the clip of McConnell freezing attracted millions of Twitter views as pundits, citizens, and neurologists hypothesized about what happened. Doctors’ speculations included heart rhythm troubles, metabolic issues, a seizure, or a mini-stroke. In March, McConnell was hospitalized for a concussion after falling. A concussion is a type of traumatic brain injury, or TBI, and there is a clear connection between TBI’s and epilepsy/seizures. Approximately 10% of people who require hospitalization after a TBI experience post-traumatic epilepsy within three years.
We might never know if it was a seizure, as McConnell will understandably prefer to keep this personal information off the public’s radar. What’s clear is that it was a neurological episode during which McConnell lost control of his body temporarily. His colleagues felt compelled to escort him away from the cameras and reporters. When he returned a few minutes later, reporters asked about his health and whether he could do his job. “Yeah,” he replied to the latter and said he was fine. Following that, he navigated the reporters’ Q&A session, which everyone observed as “sharp,” according to his aide.
As somebody who’s had complex partial seizures in professional settings dozens of times, I related to McConnell’s response. The first thing I wanted to do post-seizure was pick up where I left off and prove to everyone around me that I was okay. I recall having a seizure during a work meeting, in a conference room with 15 coworkers. A friend and colleague who knew I had a seizure disorder and saw that I was off my game escorted me from the meeting to my office. By the time we got there, the seizure was over, and I wanted to return to the meeting. “No, Laura, you need to rest,” she insisted. “I’ll fill you in later,” she added, and left me alone to recover.
I was embarrassed as I imagined what my colleagues had just witnessed: I wasn’t in control of my body. I probably moaned out loud and maybe clicked my tongue against the roof of my mouth. I turned my attention to finishing up a report that was coming due. Like McConnell, I was fine: I could analyze data, organize details, and write. Although I was partly annoyed with Pamela for insisting I rest, I also knew she was right—a short break from the meeting was wise. But like McConnell, and most people with a chronic condition or disability, I wanted to appear “normal” as quickly as possible. Society isn’t very generous about accepting/accommodating people who stray from those norms.
Unlike McConnell, I had a clear diagnosis and a team of doctors following my condition for years. I’d had seizures before, and though they were a nuisance, I was familiar with them and knew I would be fine. I hope McConnell has met with practitioners who helped him identify what occurred last week and developed a treatment plan. Given his position, I suspect he has access to good medical care, will eventually get answers, and, I hope, stay healthy.
Whether McConnell had a seizure, a mini-stroke, or something else, I also hope temporarily losing control of his body gives him reason to reflect. Between 2016-2020, McConnell effectively guided the then Republican-led Senate to stack the Supreme Court with anti-abortion Justices who eventually overturned Roe v. Wade, thus denying women in conservative states control of their bodies, in this case, access to reproductive healthcare. I’m less optimistic about McConnell’s ability to connect his personal experience with these women’s, but it would be an ideal silver lining.