Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

John Fetterman wanted a quiet start in the Senate. His health has upended that.

The Pennsylvania senator could potentially be hospitalized for weeks, an aide says.

Sen. John Fetterman (D., Pa.) and his wife Gisele wait backstage to walk from the Capitol building in Harrisburg to the inauguration ceremonies for Gov. Josh Shapiro on Jan. 17.
Sen. John Fetterman (D., Pa.) and his wife Gisele wait backstage to walk from the Capitol building in Harrisburg to the inauguration ceremonies for Gov. Josh Shapiro on Jan. 17.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

WASHINGTON — John Fetterman just wanted to fit in.

After rising to the Senate and political celebrity by being different — with his brawny looks and brash persona — Pennsylvania’s new senator arrived in Washington aiming to tone down his profile.

Instead, two hospitalizations have put Fetterman back in the national eye despite his plans to keep his head down, carefully pick his moments to speak out, and learn from his new colleagues. Less than three months into his Senate career, Fetterman could potentially be hospitalized for weeks, a senior aide said Friday.

His ongoing health problems since his May stroke, including his decision Wednesday to check into the Walter Reed National Military Center to get treatment for clinical depression, have kept Fetterman in an uncomfortable national spotlight, even as he tries to cope with his recovery, his unfamiliarity in his lofty new surroundings, and the achievement of a longtime dream that may have come at significant personal cost.

And while Fetterman’s aides are giving steady updates now, his struggles have reintroduced questions about how transparent the new senator has been about his health.

Democrats, some Republicans, and mental health advocates praised Fetterman, 53, for his courage in disclosing depression, a sometimes stigmatized condition, saying that it only added to the sense that he understands the struggles of many of his constituents.

“It’s frustrating to feel you can’t do everything you want to do because of an illness or a disability,” said former Gov. Ed Rendell, who said Parkinson’s disease has affected his own mobility. “It’s frustrating for me. I can’t imagine how frustrating it is to someone who had a dream job, went after it … won in a stunning victory, had his dream realized in the general [election], but now is plagued with health problems to make it difficult to carry out his job.”

Fetterman’s second hospitalization this month cast early questions around his future in the six-year term he’s only just begun. Fetterman’s team says he expects to be back to work, but inside Pennsylvania political circles, operatives are already brushing up on the state’s Senate vacancy laws.

People close to him stressed that his depression now is distinct from the challenges he faced during the campaign, when he contended with speech and auditory issues. They said this isn’t something they had seen until recently.

“We would not have been able to run a campaign at all or do any events if this is where he was at” then, said Joe Calvello, Fetterman’s communications director, who was also a top campaign aide.

Some commentators on the right have newly mocked Fetterman, questioned his fitness for office, and accused his aides of misleading the public, especially after his campaign initially downplayed the severity of the stroke and provided overly rosy assessments.

Fetterman first checked into a Washington hospital Feb. 8 for what aides said was lightheadness, staying for two nights and then returning to the Senate for votes Monday, Tuesday, and early Wednesday.

By Wednesday night, though, he was at Walter Reed. On Thursday his chief of staff, Adam Jentleson, said that Fetterman has been dealing with depression “off and on” throughout his life and that it had become severe in recent weeks. The office said Fetterman would voluntarily remain at the hospital for inpatient treatment.

Fetterman’s struggles with depression hadn’t been mentioned previously.

But aides now say his behavior changed in January, when the senator might crack jokes with constituents at times but in other moments was withdrawn. He was also skipping meals.

When he felt lightheaded, though, aides’ immediate concern was a second stroke. Once that was ruled out their focus turned to other worries, and when Fetterman saw Congress’ in-house doctor the following week he received a recommendation to seek treatment for depression, according to a senior Senate aide who also worked on Fetterman’s campaign.

“Senator John Fetterman has shown himself to be a courageous leader in sharing the circumstances of his hospitalization with the public,” said a statement Thursday from Rep. Susan Wild (D., Pa.), whose partner died by suicide in 2019. “In the past year, John experienced a significant health event, underwent the stress of a campaign, and is now adapting to a demanding new job — all under the glare of media lights and microscope of the public eye. He, like every American, should be able to pursue the care he needs without condemnation, mockery, or criticism, with the privacy of his family respected.”

» READ MORE: John Fetterman has depression. If you’re struggling too, here’s how to get help

Jeff Bartos, a Republican who developed a close friendship with Fetterman after the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, had surgery for thyroid cancer in the midst of his own campaign for Senate last year. He lost in the GOP primary and had time after the campaign to recover.

”The last year’s been very humbling and an opportunity to take stock,” Bartos said. “I think John never had the chance to do that. He didn’t have the chance to step out and really process.”

He applauded Fetterman’s “raw honesty.”

“We just don’t discuss this enough as a society — men in their 30s, 40s, 50s — there’s a lot of mental health challenges that we just never talk about,” he said.

A low-profile plan

Since arriving in the Senate, Fetterman has kept an intentionally low profile.

On the day he was sworn in, he didn’t put out a statement of any kind, not even a perfunctory acknowledgment of the new job. On the Senate floor, he clung closely to fellow Pennsylvania Democratic Sen. Bob Casey, his guide in his new workplace. He’s kept a full schedule of meetings with constituents and colleagues, but two senior aides said he’d been withdrawn in recent weeks.

“To see a U.S. senator admitting he’s having a tough time, too, I think it’s incredibly important,” former campaign manager Brendan McPhillips said. Like Calvello, he also said the problems Fetterman faces now are different from the ones that hampered him during the campaign.

» READ MORE: From the top of the political world to a basement office: How John Fetterman will fit in the U.S. Senate

“John would have the occasional bad day where he was really bummed out. ... The day after the debate was not a great day for the campaign,” McPhillips said. “But that’s just not the same thing as what he’s been dealing with the past few weeks.”

A health setback in a moment of triumph

Fetterman’s physical downturn came just before what should have been one of his greatest triumphs.

After running for the Senate in 2016 and finishing a distant third in the Democratic primary, he was the dominant figure in the 2022 contest. Fetterman was just days away from an emphatic primary win when personal tragedy struck.

He had a stroke May 13, the Friday before the May 17 primary and was in the hospital as he won all 67 counties. His wife, Gisele, delivered a victory speech while Fetterman sent in a brief video from his hospital bed.

The campaign, which waited two days to disclose the stroke, repeatedly declared that Fetterman was healing well and that his only serious lingering problem was processing auditory inputs and occasional verbal stumbles. Immediately after the stroke, Fetterman said in a statement he was “well on his way to a full recovery.”

As he tried to heal, though, Fetterman rolled right into one of the most pressurized campaigns in the country, facing off against TV celebrity Mehmet Oz in a critical race. His public push to get back to his old self only added to the widespread attention. Oz used Fetterman’s three-month absence from the campaign trail to redirect the tone of the campaign, asking whether Fetterman would agree to a debate, and when he would make public appearances or do interviews. He called on Fetterman to release his full health records, which the Democrat declined to do.

When Fetterman returned to the public eye, it was mostly in big rallies or one-on-one interviews with handpicked outlets.

He arrived in Washington with a largely new team of experienced Senate aides and some of his top campaign staff, but many fresh faces as well. He planned to follow the long tradition of famous new senators putting their heads down and earning their place, in the mold of freshmen such as Hillary Clinton, Al Franken, and Mitt Romney.

At times, he seemed to marvel at just being there.

“I’m just, again, looking forward to getting in and learning so much more from all of you than I’m going to be able to contribute early on here,” Fetterman told fellow senators at his first hearing, in the agriculture committee Feb. 1.

But he struggled with some of the transition. He was apart from his wife and three children. Taciturn even in the best of times, Fetterman was now trying to meet new colleagues with interactions filtered through an iPad, which provides closed captioning to help with his hearing problems.

It was yet another way that a man who already stands out physically was marked as different. He still sometimes flubs his words.

But his aides say he intends to return to the job, and likely will speak about his struggle with depression when he’s ready.

“The goal here is to get him the help he needs and wants and then to come back and be a better senator for the people of Pennsylvania,” Calvello said. “That is the goal, that’s the path, that’s what’s going to happen.”