Journalist Kara Swisher was born in Pennsylvania, loves to wear sloppy clothes, and is a stroke survivor — so she and John Fetterman had a whole lot to talk about in this latest episode of On With Kara Swisher.
Fetterman, of course, is the tattoo-covered, brash-talking, heart-on-his-hoodie-sleeve Democrat who has always drawn a lot of attention, but never more so than when he suffered a terrifying stroke earlier this year in the middle of his Senate campaign. Swisher and Fetterman discuss the similarities of their brushes with death, including how both were saved by a quick-thinking family member, as well as the disorienting recovery process and, in Fetterman’s case, what it’s been like to have his health scare leveraged for political attacks. They also talk about criminal justice reform, Pennsylvania’s Trump country, and Fetterman’s opponent, Mehmet Oz — who he compares to The Simpsons’ Dr. Nick. Below is an excerpt from their conversation.
On With Kara Swisher
Kara Swisher: My own mother, who votes in Pennsylvania, at dinner the other night said, “John Fetterman shouldn’t be senator because he had a stroke.” And I turned to her and I said, “You know, Mom, I had the exact same stroke.” And she said, “You’re different.” And I said, “No, it’s the exact same stroke. And I’ve never been more successful.” So I know what it’s like to go through what you’re going through. I didn’t realize I was having it until my brother told me I was having one because I had aphasia, where my voice — I wasn’t able to speak, essentially. It really was an emotional moment, the idea of losing your life or the ability to talk. What was your experience?
John Fetterman: What happened was I was three or four days before the primary, and I was actually at a Sheetz, and I was getting ready to go to an event in Millersville University. And I walked out of the bathroom, I was going to the car, and my wife, Gisele, was kind of like the same to your brother in that situation. And she said, “Something’s wrong; you’re having a stroke.” And I’m like, “No, what are you talking about? That can’t be. No.” And we got in the car, and I started realizing that we weren’t going to the event — we’re going to the hospital. And I’m like, “What are you doing? What are we doing? We got to go to the event.” I was arguing in the middle of a stroke. And I got to the hospital, and thank God. If that stroke would’ve happened at 11 at night, or I was in a remote area — being 20 minutes away from the best stroke facility in Pennsylvania, that’s the reason why I lived. It changed my life in the most profound way that I would rank all the way up with becoming married or becoming a father. And life has never been the same since.
Kara Swisher: How do you perceive your health right now?
John Fetterman: I feel like my recovery has been miraculous, to be honest. I feel great physically, in terms of just living a normal life the way I have. And I have auditory processing, and I’m using captioning, and I’m going to be using captioning in the debate. And there are issues in terms of that because, especially when I’m being asked very specific questions, they have to count on captioning because I want to make sure I’m able to answer that kind of question.
Kara Swisher: Does that get better? Has that gotten better over time?
John Fetterman: Yeah, it gets better and better. Everything’s been going in the same direction. And — I knock on wood — I haven’t had a day of backsliding. But the difference is, is that I hope you didn’t have your doctor in your life making fun of you or saying that you’re not fit to do your job or anything. Or there’s somebody filming you, counting how many words that you miss.
Kara Swisher: Yeah. Unfortunately, sometimes I feel like it’s working it. I was pretty appalled, having had that happen to me. In fact, Meg Whitman actually said something that made me angry, where she said, “Oh, you can talk. I thought you’d have to quit.” And I remember I gave a talk where everyone kept touching me and saying, “Are you okay? You need to stop being stressed.” And I said, “I’m going to be more stressed, I think, because I’m not going to slow down because of this.” So let’s talk about Dr. Oz. He and his allies have been attacking you for having the stroke. They suggested you lied about your recovery, that you had a stroke because you didn’t eat your vegetables. And that you’re unfit to serve in the Senate because of it. I was gobsmacked that a doctor would do this.
John Fetterman: Yeah, I was too. Of all the things that I was concerned about, having three young children and realizing that I could have lost my life and just being confronted with mortality in such a very dramatic way, to have somebody, a doctor, making fun of it, and having that happen at a national stage is — I don’t know. And I started to realize that I just wanted to connect with people on the campaign trail. I asked people at events or at rallies, “Who’s ever had a health challenge in your life?” And a lot of hands go up. And then when I add in “How about your parents?” And then more hands go up. “Or what about your grandparents? Or, God forbid, your child?” And then, by the time two-thirds to three-quarters of the hands are up, and I said, “Good, I’m so sorry that this happened. I know what that feels like. And I really sincerely hope that you don’t have a doctor in your life making fun of what happened to you, blaming you for what happened, and then saying that you are unable to work and you shouldn’t.”
Kara Swisher: So you have a debate coming up. Do you suspect Oz will use this to purposely to try to trip you up? One doctor told me he could make you try to say — he’s a cardiac thoracic surgeon; he could make you say uncommon words.
John Fetterman: I have no idea what to expect. The fact is, is that for me to be able to have a debate, I need captioning. That’s just a fact that I had a stroke. And if you think it’s funny or you think that means that I’m not fit to be a senator or work is — it’s absurd. But no matter what, if there’s an advantage to exploit, they’re clearly going to.
Kara Swisher: Is there a thing that you like about Oz?
John Fetterman: I don’t know enough about him other than him making fun of me nearly dying.
Kara Swisher: You don’t have to like him. You don’t have to like him.
John Fetterman: No, it’s not that. I understand sometimes that things aren’t personal or whatever. But as I said before, if me making fun of a father with three young kids that almost died is required for me to win, then I would never do that.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
On With Kara Swisher is produced by Nayeema Raza, Blakeney Schick, Cristian Castro Rossel, and Rafaela Siewert, with mixing by Fernando Arruda, engineering by Christopher Shurtleff, and theme music by Trackademics. New episodes will drop every Monday and Thursday. Follow the show on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts.
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