89-year-old Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., returned to Congress earlier this month after missing more than two months of work because of shingles, her office first claimed. When the elderly Feinstein returned, she was noticeably diminished and confined to a wheelchair.
On Thursday, it was confirmed that Feinstein had suffered from more serious complications than previously disclosed.
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Feinstein’s office said Thursday that she is suffering from Ramsay Hunt syndrome, a complication from the shingles virus that can paralyze part of the face, and that she contracted encephalitis — inflammation of the brain — while battling the illness.
The senator had not previously disclosed those serious medical concerns, though she said in a statement last week that she had suffered complications from the virus. The longtime California senator returned from a more than two-month absence on May 10 after weeks of questions about her declining health and whether she would be back in the Senate at all.
Adam Russell, a spokesman for Feinstein, said that the encephalitis, “resolved itself shortly after she was released from the hospital in March.” Feinstein continues to have complications from the Ramsay Hunt syndrome, Russell said.
Upon her return last week, Feinstein looked noticeably thinner in her wheelchair, and she’s appeared confused at times when speaking to reporters or being wheeled through the halls.
In an interview with the Los Angeles Times that she “has been here” in the Senate.
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“No, I haven’t been gone … I haven’t been gone, I’ve been working,” she said.
Feinstein told the reporter she hasn’t been working from home, but has been at the U.S. Capitol.
“No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting,” she said. “Please, you either know or don’t know.”
“The senator previously disclosed that she had several complications related to her shingles diagnosis,” Russell said in the statement.
“As discussed in the New York Times article, those complications included Ramsay Hunt syndrome and encephalitis.”
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The Times reported Thursday —
Using a wheelchair, with the left side of her face frozen and one eye nearly shut, she seemed disoriented as an aide steered her through the marble corridors of the Senate, complaining audibly that something was stuck in her eye. …
Characterized by swelling of the brain, post-shingles encephalitis can leave patients with lasting memory or language problems, sleep disorders, bouts of confusion, mood disorders, headaches and difficulties walking. Older patients tend to have the most trouble recovering. …
Many people close to Ms. Feinstein, a six-term senator, described seeing her operating in the Senate in her current state as “frightening,” a tragic end to a formidable career in politics that they worry is casting a shadow over her legacy and her achievements.
Feinstein’s face has appeared partially paralyzed since she returned to the Senate, stirring some speculation about whether she had had a stroke. Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a complication that occurs when the shingles virus reaches a facial nerve near the ears. It can also cause hearing loss.
Encephalitis can also be caused by shingles. The swelling of the brain can have a number of different symptoms, including personality changes, seizures, stiffness, confusion and problems with sight or hearing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
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Aides to Feinstein said last week that she is still recovering from her illness and would operate on a reduced schedule. Since she has returned, she has missed some votes where she was not needed. On Wednesday, for example, she missed the first three Senate votes of the day but appeared for the last two, in which the margin was much closer.
Feinstein has faced questions for several years about her clearly declining health and her mental acuity. In February Feinstein said she would not run for re-election in 2024.
But some Democrats have pushed for her to leave sooner. A member of the California congressional delegation, Democratic Rep. Ro Khanna, called on her to resign as she stayed away from Washington for more than ten weeks, and several other House Progressives have echoed his call. And Senate Democrats were increasingly anxious during Feinstein’s absence as they were unable to confirm some of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees with a narrow 51-49 majority.
However, some of Feinstein’s colleagues have defended her continued presence in the Senate. Some senators accused the public of ageism.
Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, who is less than a year younger than the California Democrat and has worked with her for three decades on the committee, said he thinks Democrats have been trying to force her out of office “because she’s old.” He called that “anti-human.”
Critics responded that it’s also “anti-human” to expect a senator to work past the age of 89, even amid her failing health.
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Other senators said that critics were sexist for demanding Feinstein’s resignation.
The attempt to replace her on the committee is “disrespectful and not in keeping with her many contributions,” said Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, a Republican who is close friends with Feinstein.
Collins said Feinstein has been treated differently from men in the Senate who have had memory or health issues. Examples include Republican Sens. Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia.
Cochran and Byrd remained atop the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee after their health began to fail; Byrd eventually stepped down from the position voluntarily; Cochran resigned from Congress.
“The contrast is pretty sharp,” said Collins, who served with all three men and has worked closely with Feinstein for years. Collins said senators were more collegial and respectful of each other in the past, and there was less pressure on the men to resign or step down from a committee.
She said she believes the efforts to push Feinstein off the committee are sexist. “We’re all human, and senators get ill,” Collins said. “Because the Senate has been disproportionately male for so long, I think what we’re seeing now is a different standard being applied.”
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Older senators in declining health were more protected by leaders and members of both parties in the past, Collins said.
“I’ve never seen them go after a man who was sick in the Senate in that way,” said Pelosi, 83, in an interview with a California radio station. “I don’t know what political agendas are at work that are going after Sen. Feinstein in that way.”
Of course, Sen. John Fetterman, D-Penn., has also received extensive coverage for his health woes, despite being a man.
The Horn editorial team and the Associated Press contributed to this article.