On the Campaign Trail, John Fetterman Cited Doctors' Notes Attesting to His Vitality. Now He Says He Was Told to Get More Rest.

Fetterman's medical issues raise questions about what medical advice the stroke survivor actually received

Sen. John Fetterman (Getty Images)
February 23, 2023

In June 2022, then-Pennsylvania Senate candidate John Fetterman (D.) pointed to a doctor's note that indicated he could "campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem" after suffering a stroke in May. After returning to the campaign trail in August, Fetterman told voters he was "feeling great, better than I have in years." And in October, his campaign released a second doctor’s note giving Fetterman a clean bill of health.

Fast forward to his first six weeks in office, and Fetterman is painting a starkly different account of the medical advice he received on the campaign trail. After Fetterman was hospitalized for lightheadedness earlier this month, the New York Times reported that the freshman senator believes "he may have set himself back permanently by not taking the recommended amount of rest during the campaign" after his stroke.

Now, Fetterman is laid up in Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, receiving treatment for "severe" clinical depression—his second hospital stay during his six weeks in office. The contrasting and contradictory statements raise questions about what medical advice the stroke survivor actually received, and whether he was candid about it with voters—or whether he or his advisers shaded the truth in order win one of the most competitive Senate races in the country.

Fetterman’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

On May 13, Fetterman suffered an ischemic stroke, the result of a blood clot blocking the flow of nutrients and oxygen to the brain. Stroke victims can suffer permanent brain damage and, like Fetterman, have trouble processing sound.

According to the CDC, it can take "years" to recover from strokes, and some patients may never fully heal. Johns Hopkins Medicine suggests stroke victims spend the first three months after the stroke focusing on recovery and developing "compensation strategies to work around a functional impairment," like "learning to hold a toothpaste tube so the strong hand can unscrew the cap."

As Fetterman chief of staff Adam Jentleson told the Times, "what you’re supposed to do to recover from this is do as little as possible." Fetterman, however, "was forced to do as much as possible," according to Jentleson.

It is unclear who recommended that Fetterman take more rest during the campaign. But Fetterman’s doctors, Ramesh Chandra and Clifford Chen, gave no indication in notes they released during the campaign that Fetterman needed more rest or required treatment for depression.

On June 3, Fetterman’s campaign released a letter from Chandra, a Pittsburgh cardiologist, who said that if Fetterman "takes his medications, eats healthy, and exercises" he "should be able to campaign and serve in the U.S. Senate without a problem." On Oct. 19, the campaign released a letter from Chen, a Fetterman booster, who said Fetterman "has no work restrictions and can work full duty in public office."

Fetterman and his allies leaned heavily on those assessments to make the case that he was healthy enough to serve in the Senate. Fetterman campaign spokesman Joe Calvello said that Chandra’s assessment showed Fetterman was "back at full strength" and "perfect" in terms of cognitive ability.

Fetterman’s wife Gisele cited the doctor’s assessment when asked whether she ever wanted her husband to drop out of the race.

"No, I mean I waited to see what the doctors thought," Gisele Fetterman said. "The doctors all said he would make a full recovery and that he’s more in shape to do this."

Chandra and Chen did not respond to requests for comment.