WASHINGTON — At Senator John Fetterman’s desk in the Senate chamber, there is a newly installed monitor that rises or lowers, depending on whether he sits or stands, and provides closed captioning so he can follow the proceedings. At the center dais, a custom desk stand has been built to accommodate the same technology for when he takes his shifts presiding over the Senate. The sergeant-at-arms has arranged for live audio-to-text transcription for the committees on which Mr. Fetterman serves, and plans to expand the service to all Senate hearings.
Mr. Fetterman, 53, the 6-foot-8, tattooed and goateed Democrat from Pennsylvania who suffered a near-fatal stroke last May and went on to win one of the most competitive seats in November’s midterm elections, was never going to blend in seamlessly in the marbled corridors of Congress.
But his adjustment to serving in the Senate has been made vastly more difficult by the strains of his recovery, which left him with a physical impairment and serious mental health challenges that have rendered the transition extraordinarily challenging — even with the accommodations that have been made to help him adapt.
“What you’re supposed to do to recover from this is do as little as possible,” said Adam Jentleson, his chief of staff. Instead, Mr. Fetterman “was forced to do as much as possible — he had to get back to the campaign trail. It’s hard to claw that back.”
On Wednesday, Mr. Fetterman was hospitalized after feeling lightheaded while attending a daylong Senate Democratic retreat in Washington. Tests showed no signs of another stroke and his spokesman said he was in good spirits, talking to family and staff members. But he spent a second night in the hospital on Thursday as doctors monitored him for seizures.
The latest health scare convinced his staff that Mr. Fetterman needs a better plan to take care of himself, both physically and emotionally.
Mr. Fetterman declined to be interviewed for this story. But aides and confidantes describe his introduction to the Senate as a difficult period, filled with unfamiliar duties that are taxing for someone still in recovery: meetings with constituents, attending caucus and committee meetings, appearing in public at White House events and at the State of the Union address, as well as making appearances in Pennsylvania.
The most evident disability is a neurological condition that impairs his hearing. Mr. Fetterman suffers from auditory processing issues, forcing him to rely primarily on a tablet to transcribe what is being said to him. The hearing issues are inconsistent; they often get worse when he is in a stressful or unfamiliar situation. When it’s bad, Mr. Fetterman has described it as trying to make out the muffled voice of the teacher in the “Peanuts” cartoon, whose words could never be deciphered.
The stroke — after which he had a pacemaker and defibrillator implanted — also took a less apparent but very real psychological toll on Mr. Fetterman. It has been less than a year since the stroke transformed him from someone with a large stature that suggested machismo — a central part of his political identity — into a physically altered version of himself, and he is frustrated at times that he is not yet back to the man he once was. He has had to come to terms with the fact that he may have set himself back permanently by not taking the recommended amount of rest during the campaign. And he continues to push himself in ways that people close to him worry are detrimental.
“It is stressful, having to go through that experience in the context of the most high-profile Senate race in the country,” said Mr. Jentleson.
A Divided Congress
The 118th Congress is underway, with Republicans controlling the House and Democrats holding the Senate.
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- Covid: In a House hearing, the acting director of the National Institutes of Health pushed back against Republicans’ assertions that a lab leak stemming from taxpayer-funded research may have caused the coronavirus pandemic.
- Performative Patriotism: A 43-minute recitation of the Constitution by House Republicans was the latest in a series of acts of public patriotism, ranging from the sincere to the performative.
As Mr. Fetterman adjusts to his new life, the Senate and his colleagues are also adjusting to his special needs.
“We’re going to have to learn our own styles with it,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota, who said she experimented with the tablet at a recent Democratic caucus lunch. “What I was saying was accurate even when I talked fast. I wanted to make sure it was accurate. It was kind of to imagine what it would be like to be him.”
“He answers like you would answer anyone,” Ms. Klobuchar added. “It’s us that have to get used to it; he’s used to it.”
The ongoing hearing issue means Mr. Fetterman cannot partake in the hallway scrums with journalists that are part of most lawmakers’ daily existence in the Capitol. He typically walks around the building with many staffers, in part because he needs assistants to test his technological setup before he enters any room and in part because they’re all still learning their way around the building.
These days, Mr. Fetterman, who as lieutenant governor had reporters’ numbers in his cellphone and had near-constant running conversations with some of them, has stopped interacting with journalists, whose voices he often cannot hear in the echoing hallways.
“Before the stroke, he was the kind of person who loved the give-and-take with reporters,” Mr. Jentleson said. “The challenge is to be able to get back to that place, given the current limitations.”
For now, Mr. Fetterman is glad to have a little break from the media glare. Current and former staff members describe him as someone who has no desire to be at the center of every negotiation and who campaigned on a promise to be a solid 51st Democratic vote in the Senate supporting President Biden’s agenda. He has often been befuddled by the attention he attracts, even from colleagues who stop him for selfies, and wants less of it.
The attacks during the campaign — Fox News’ Tucker Carlson called him “unapologetically brain damaged” and Republicans accused him of lying about his health — also are never far out of mind. Some of those aspersions continue; the Republican National Committee blasted out a clip earlier this month of Mr. Fetterman tripping over the word “water” at an event announcing $340 million in federal funding for Philadelphia to modernize its water infrastructure. On Thursday night, Mr. Carlson was back to attacking Mr. Fetterman’s health even as he recuperated in the hospital. “Sad, but also, you wonder, what is going on?” Mr. Carlson said.
Mr. Fetterman and his staff take it in stride, noting that they learned from the campaign that most people are reflexively compassionate about his condition, in part because they may have personal experiences with similar situations.
Senator Bob Casey, the other Democrat from Pennsylvania, noted that Mr. Fetterman had been widely criticized for his halting debate performance against his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, but was treated more kindly by voters, ultimately winning his race by five points.
“There are a lot of people out there who understand disability, and understand struggle, and he won big,” Mr. Casey said.
At his first Agriculture Committee hearing earlier this month, Mr. Fetterman asked questions about trade and organic farming, stumbling slightly over his words. Despite the flubs, his office circulated video of his presentation to supporters.
Mr. Fetterman pushed hard to get seated on the agriculture panel, in part because he views the farm bill as one of the few major pieces of legislation that has a good chance of passage in a divided Congress, and an opportunity for a freshman senator to influence major policy without having to whip votes or create coalitions for the package itself.
Still, keeping one’s head down and doing the work unnoticed is a tall order for someone whose national appeal was looking different and speaking differently to voters, even before his stroke.
Representative Marie Gluesenkamp Pérez, Democrat of Washington, said she approached Mr. Fetterman at a White House reception for new members because she was curious about a fellow lawmaker who could speak to working-class voters.
She was wearing boots, jeans and a Carhartt jacket. Mr. Fetterman, much to her chagrin, was dressed in a business suit instead of his signature hoodie.
“I thought I was going to have an ally here,” she said. “He said, ‘Why does she get to wear jeans, and I don’t?’”
Ms. Gluesenkamp Pérez said the tablet allowed for seamless small talk and dress code jokes.
“It’s just a slight delay,” she said. “I didn’t notice he was using it at first. Then I was like, ‘Why are they holding it?’ It took me a minute to figure out what was going on.”
His Democratic colleagues in the Senate said they view the changes being made to accommodate him as modernizations for the Senate, a workplace like any other.
“The right attitude has to be consistent with what we hope we learned in the last 30 years or so, that we can provide reasonable accommodations in the workplace,” said Mr. Casey. “If we’re doing it right, it should not be him adapting to the workplace, it should be senators in both parties adapting and accommodating him. Just like we would anyone.”
He compared the accommodations being made for Mr. Fetterman with the Senate installing a ramp for Senator Tammy Duckworth, Democrat of Illinois, a former combat veteran who lost both of her legs in 2004 while serving as a helicopter pilot in the Iraq War.
Senator Ben Ray Luján, Democrat of New Mexico, who also suffered a stroke last year, said recovering mentally can be as difficult as recovering physically.
“I was very blessed there was a lot of love and humanity around me,” he said. “I can’t imagine what my recovery would have been like if I had people saying horrible, disrespectful, uneducated, hateful things. It’s tough.”
Mr. Luján has checked in with Mr. Fetterman regularly since his stroke.
“I would just say, ‘Hey, just thinking about you, hope you’re having a great day,’” Mr. Luján said.
Throughout the Senate’s history, there have been physically impaired senators, from amputees to those who were blind. There has been one deaf senator: Samuel McEnery of Louisiana, who served in the Senate from 1897 to 1910. And there have been those who have suffered massive strokes that have left them impaired.
Former Senator Tim Johnson, Democrat of South Dakota, suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006 that left his speech and mobility impaired. Former Senator Mark Kirk, Republican of Illinois, suffered a major stroke in 2012, two years into his first and only term, and underwent intense physical therapy to relearn how to walk.
But Mr. Fetterman is the only one who is dealing with recuperation as he enters the Senate for the first time. For now, that means living alone in a Washington apartment during the week, and driving four hours home to Braddock, Pa., most weekends to see his wife and three children.
Ms. Klobuchar said her sense is that Mr. Fetterman wants to be in the Senate, despite the additional challenges he faces.
“If you’re not happy, you don’t show up at all these things,” she said. “He seems very active and wants to be involved in what’s going on. He seems glad to be there.”