Congresswoman with brain disorder skipping therapy to serve in House

Congresswoman with brain disorder skipping therapy to serve in House

To keep up with an unrelenting US House schedule, Virginia congresswoman Jennifer Wexton has had to skip some of her speech and physical therapy appointments as she battles a rare, life-threatening brain disorder, she told CBS News in an interview published Saturday.

“It’s been a difficult journey, but I’m working hard as ever to serve,” Wexton, a Democrat, said in a social media post promoting the interview that explored her life since being diagnosed with progressive supranuclear palsy (PSP) in September. The post on X, formerly known as Twitter, added: “I’m sharing my experience to raise awareness of what PSP is and why it’s so important to find a cure.”

Wexton also pointedly lamented to CBS that she had been forced to forgo seeking re-election in 2024 as a result of her illness, which the Cleveland Clinic says has a typical life expectancy of six to nine years after diagnosis.

“I’m heartbroken to have to give up something I have loved after so many years of serving my community,” said Wexton, 55, who clinched her House seat by defeating a Republican incumbent in 2018.

As CBS tells it, Wexton has struggled both to walk the sprawling US Capitol complex and enunciate in conversations as she grapples with an illness she has described as “Parkinson’s disease on steroids”.

Wexton in fact had initially been diagnosed with Parkinson’s. But after not making as much progress as she had hoped in treating that diagnosis, her medical providers concluded she had PSP.

The National Institutes of Health report that most people with PSP develop eye problems as the condition progresses, and they tend to lean backwards while also extending their necks. People with Parkinson’s, on the other hand, tend to bend forward.

Despite the challenges that her symptoms pose, Wexton said she has sacrificed attending therapy sessions aimed at alleviating them because Democrats are only eight seats in the minority in the House.

The House’s schedule has been particularly hectic after the Republican representative Kevin McCarthy of California was historically ousted as the chamber’s speaker on 3 October as retaliation for engaging in bipartisan talks to pass a stopgap measure temporarily avoiding a government shutdown days earlier.

During numerous rounds of sometimes late-night voting during the following weeks, several Republicans made unsuccessful runs to succeed McCarthy. The Louisiana Republican Mike Johnson eventually secured enough support to seize the speaker’s gavel on 25 October.

The House has since needed to approve another stopgap measure, which has staved off the possibility of a government shutdown until January.

Wexton says the frequently acrimonious atmosphere in the House has been increasingly difficult to work in given her condition. But, she told CBS, she has been using text-to-voice technology to help her communicate, and she’s gotten around the Capitol with walking sticks as well as assistance from aides.

As Congress prepared for the Thanksgiving recess, Wexton’s chief of staff, Abby Carter, sent a letter to her House colleagues to explain the changes they had likely noticed in her and advise them on how to interact with her.

“Our team knows that her current neck strain can be jarring to see and it can be difficult for members to understand the congresswoman, especially on the floor when it’s loud. We ask that you give her some patience when you are speaking with her in person,” one part of Carter’s letter read. “It is completely OK to ask her to repeat herself (we do it regularly), ask her to write down what she’s saying on her [computer tablet], ask our staffer who is with her on the floor to help, or just tell her that you’ll follow up in texts.”

Wexton told CBS that opting to work until the end of her final term in Congress – and making the necessary adjustments – has left her fatigued. Yet the trial attorney and former state legislator is counting on her family, staff and congressional allies to help her see out her time in elected office.

“I have a lot I still want to do,” she said, according to CBS.

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