When Sen. Chris Van Hollen felt a sharp pain in his neck, then felt light-headed, two minutes into a speech at the Rocky Gap Resort last month, he had to make a quick decision.
Should he tell his audience, which had gathered for the Western Maryland Democratic Summit, that he wasn’t feeling well, and sit down? Or should he ignore his symptoms and “muscle through”?
He decided to continue speaking, propping his arm on the lectern for balance. “It was a pretty good speech, after all,” he recalled with a chuckle.
To those in the crowd, he showed no visible signs of being in distress at the time.
Although he finished his remarks, his condition deteriorated, and that evening Van Hollen was rushed from his home in Kensington to George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D.C. That’s where he received the “scary” diagnosis: The pain he was feeling was due to a neck vein that had burst — a “sub-arachnoid bleed.”
He had suffered a “minor” stroke, doctors said.
Doctors kept him in the hospital for a week, for observation. He then recuperated for a few days at home before returning to work — remotely while the Senate was in recess, then in the office.
A 63-year-old who is seeking a second term in November, Van Hollen (D) is back in the office, looking and sounding no different than before the May 14 episode.
“I feel much better,” he said in an interview in his Capitol Hill office on Wednesday. “Getting better by the day.”
The bleeding in the senator’s neck stopped on its own. Van Hollen said doctors have told him they don’t know what caused the tear, but they believe the likelihood of a recurrence is very small.
“They looked at my entire vascular system and said there is no underlying condition,” he said. “They also don’t know why this happened.”
Dr. Dimitrios Sigounas, a GW cardiologist who treated the senator, expressed optimism about Van Hollen’s prospects for a full recovery.
“This type of a venous bleed has no long-term consequences in terms of a patient’s ability to recover,” he said in an interview. “It has an excellent prognosis, with nearly zero percent risk of recurrence.”
Signounas said he kept Van Hollen in the hospital for a week “to make sure that there wasn’t anything that needed treatment.”
“There should be no long-term effects on cognitive ability or stamina,” the doctor added. “He should make a complete recovery.”
Van Hollen still feels “some residual, periodic neck pain,” for which he takes Tylenol. He is also on blood pressure medication “temporarily.”
“When you have blood in the head in places that it’s not supposed to be, it creates pressure, and it takes time for that to subside,” he said.
Doctors have suggested that Van Hollen ease back to his old routine. He said his wife Katherine is policing his schedule.
“(They said) no yard work,” Van Hollen said. “I said, ‘Okay, that sounds good to me.’”
Van Hollen said he’s received “hundreds and hundreds” of text messages, calls and cards from Senate colleagues, state and local leaders throughout Maryland, and constituents. “I’m grateful for the outpouring of support and well-wishes and love,” he said, his voice cracking.
“I have a fresh appreciation for doctors, nurses and all the health-care providers, really,” he added. “It’s just a first class team at GW.”
President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris phoned him during his seven-day hospital stay. “I’ve been there, buddy,” the president said, a reference to the aneurysm he suffered while working in the Capitol decades ago.
Now that he’s back at work, Van Hollen is working with fellow Democrats to advance gun safety legislation. He said his party is also looking to “salvage” elements of the Build Back Better bill, including the provisions that would allow Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices, climate measures, a proposal to expand veterans health care, and an end to certain tax breaks for corporations and the ultra-wealthy.
“Of all the issues that I’ve dealt with here in Congress, [firearms safety] has been the most disappointing in terms of lack of progress,” he said. “At the point where disappointment merges into just anger at the inaction.”
By Bruce DePuyt