ATLANTA – Georgia’s political world shuddered a little last week with the news that Sen. Johnny Isakson has Parkinson’s Disease, and now that the initial surprise has subsided, voters may be wondering whether he’s still qualified.
“My diagnosis has not impacted my ability to represent the state of Georgia in the U.S. Senate,” he said in his announcement. “…I am eager to take my record of results to the voters of Georgia as I run for re-election in 2016.”
The Marietta Republican has been a fixture in Peach State Politics for four decades. In the 1980s, his colleagues in the state legislature elected him House Republican leader during four of his seven terms in the General Assembly. He lost a bid for governor in 1990 and for the U.S. Senate in 1996, but he won a crowded special election in 1999 to the U.S. House when Newt Gingrich resigned, winning without a runoff.
He finally got to the U.S. Senate in 2004, winning then, and for re-election six years later, by wide margins.
A Morris News Service poll last month showed a 71 percent approval rating.
So, the interest in his health is understandable.
After all, the seat he holds was vacated in 2000 by the unexpected death of Sen. Paul Coverdell just two years into the term. But then, Georgians have also elected others who weren’t entirely able-bodied, such as Sen. Max Cleland who has been wheelchair-bound since losing three limbs in the Vietnam War.
Isakson has repeatedly said he would be running for a third Senate term next year, and bragging about his financial war chest. The bravado has so far scared away opponents from any party, although the health development may spark newfound courage in would-be challengers.
Isakson’s neurologist, Dr. Thomas Holmes, prepared a signed statement for the news media that the senator’s office released. In it, he recounted how the 70-year-old patient first sought help in November, 2012, for a stiff left arm. Nine months and several follow-up visits later, Holmes diagnosed him as having Parkinson’s, a progressive nerve disease.
“I believe he is fully capable of continuing to perform his duties as a U.S. senator, and I believe he is fully capable of running for re-election and serving for another term,” Holmes wrote.
After an assessment last month, Holmes concluded the senator is halfway to the second of five stages of progression with what he called “mild symptoms” – the stiff arm and a shuffling walk.
But Isakson is an obedient patient who submitted to physical therapy, takes his medicine twice daily and continues to exercise. He even plays golf weekly.
“He has continued to maintain his rigorous Senate schedule without difficulty since 2012,” the physician wrote.
That schedule of long hours, tedious meetings, frequent travel and political stress might cause the healthiest of men to buckle, but Isakson says he thrives on it. It provides the energy to keep him going.
“I am busier and have more responsibility today than ever before in my political career, and I couldn’t be happier about that,” he said, noting that he serves on five Senate committees and is the only Republican chairing two of them.
Gov. Nathan Deal confirmed that.
“In the 35 years that I’ve known Johnny Isakson, he has risen to meet – and overcome – every obstacle he’s encountered with determination and a smile on his face,” Deal said. “There’s not a doubt in my mind that he and Diane will rise to meet this challenge.”
How much of the statements of support are political puffery and wishful thinking?
Independent Parkinson’s experts say Isakson should indeed be able to function in the Senate, which, after all, is full of old men.
“Most Parkinson’s patients remain very sharp,” said Dr. E. Frank McDonald, a Gainesville neurologist and speaker of the Medical Association of Georgia’s House of Delegates. “A lot of times, their speed slows down but not their accuracy.”
Medicine in use for 40 years has been successful treating the symptoms, which are mostly related to walking, arm use, balance and tremors. A softer voice and an inexpressive face are also common.
Fatigue, depression, memory loss and cognitive debilitation are possible in the advanced stages, which experts say should be long past the next, six-year Senate term.
Patients typically live another 15-20 years with the disease, which would be well beyond Isakson’s normal life expectancy.
“It’s not a death sentence,” said Dr. John Morgan, a researcher and director of the National Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence at Georgia Regents University. “Patients who take their medication do quite well.”
For bright patients like Isakson, he said, any reduced mental capacity will be relatively insignificant because they have so much on reserve to begin with. A patient with a ninth-grade education would have less to spare.
“The personality of the person and the drive is pretty much in tact as the disease goes forward,” he said. “Usually, if someone has always been a go-getter … they do well. They are still the same person. … I suspect he’ll still rock the mic.”
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