When we first broke the news that Sen. Tim Johnson had suffered an apparent stroke, our thoughts and prayers went out to him and his family that he make a healthy and speedy recovery. As journalists, though, part of our responsibility was to explore the political ramifications of a possible vacancy in the U.S. Senate -- especially after Democrats wrestled control away from Republicans in a stunning upset election last month that gave them a one-seat majority. However, I know some people think we're callous to so quickly surmise what this might mean for the balance of power in the Senate.
But, while I spent the better part of Wednesday helping my colleagues cover the story, the news reminded me of a time in my family when our lives read like the breaking news bulletins you're seeing on MSNBC about Sen. Johnson's condition. Just over two years ago, my mother underwent
emergency brain surgery. The road to recovery since then has been like riding a roller coaster in the dark. You expect the ride will be scary but not knowing where the peaks and valleys lay doubles your fear.
About two weeks after having a routine heart surgery, my mother began acting strangely. She was disoriented. She didn't know what day it was. Out of the blue she began dressing for a party that happened weeks earlier. She kept asking my younger sister where I was, apparently not remembering that I had gotten married just weeks before and didn't live at home anymore. Her doctor said this behavior was a side effect of the medications she was taking for her heart surgery.
My father called me a couple of days later to tell me they were taking my mom to the hospital as a "precaution" because of her odd symptoms. He said it was nothing to worry about. It's the sort of lie your parents tell you so that you won't worry before they think you really need to. But, it's the sort of lie that as a child you pick up on only because the fear in their voice is the kind that is not easily masked no matter how hard they try.
The strange symptoms were actually a result of a massive brain hemmorhage. The blood was putting pressure on her brain and had to be drained immediately. She'd have to undergo brain surgery. Those few hours as we huddled in the waiting room at Fairfax Hospital waiting for the surgery to end were daunting. In retrospect, though, those hours were not as difficult as the days, weeks and months that followed. She spent the first few days in the ICU -- covered in a web of tubes, missing half a head of hair (which had to be shaved off for surgery), her face and hands swollen beyond recognition. But, as soon as she showed some signs of improvement, she got worse. Just days later, the brain seizures began. A day or so later, she stopped talking. After regaining her speech, she spent hours in physical and cognitive rehab during which she had to relearn her alphabet, our home address and telephone numbers she had dialed by heart for years. While her doctors are still recovering new information about the extent of her brain damage, an arsenal of daily medications and frequent visits to an army of doctors keep her in good health.
My experience is not unusual as I'm sure many here have unfortuntately endured the pain of a sick loved one. I struggle to balance my own personal feelings about the issue while realizing that this is a story with the potential not just to affect the people of South Dakota but the country as a whole. All this leads to me believe, though, that we can guess all we want about what might happen in the Senate, but it may be a long while before we actually know.