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A neurology professor weighs in on the health questions surrounding Mitch McConnell

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Yesterday one of the most powerful men in Washington was briefly and literally speechless. While taking questions from reporters, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell froze in place, gripping the lectern, silent for about 30 seconds. An aide tried to help.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Did you hear the question, senator - running for reelection in 2026?

MITCH MCCONNELL: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. I'm sorry, you all. We're going to need a minute. Senator...

KELLY: McConnell eventually appeared to recover. He took two more questions. His spokesperson later said he was momentarily lightheaded. But a similar episode happened last month. So we have called Dr. Ann Murray. She is movement disorders division chief at the Rockefeller Neurosciences Institute at West Virginia University. Dr. Murray, welcome.

ANN MURRAY: Thanks so much for having me, Mary Louise.

KELLY: Understanding that you have not examined Senator McConnell - so without asking you to make any kind of diagnosis, just briefly tick through what's the range of things that may be going on here.

MURRAY: Yeah, I think it's always important to not just emphasize one episode or one event in somebody's life but also to put it in context. And I think to me, that was the most alarming piece - that putting this in context of other recent events where clearly Senator McConnell wasn't feeling like himself is the most concerning thing. And it does raise significant concern for an underlying medical problem and potentially even an underlying neurologic problem.

KELLY: I mean, the - again, not wishing to venture in any way towards speculation, but I have seen people saying this could be anything from dehydration to a partial seizure, some kind of stroke. Are all of those things on the table if you were, you know, to be examining him as a patient in your practice?

MURRAY: Absolutely. You know, I think you're spot on in that we should never speculate about somebodys medical condition having not done a thorough history, an examination. But it is concerning. And, you know, I think that my emphasis would be that anyone experiencing similar symptoms should absolutely seek medical care and have part of that medical care be, you know, with potential specialists if needed.

KELLY: McConnell is 81 years old. He missed nearly six weeks of work this past spring after a fall that caused a broken rib and a concussion. That concussion - is there any way to know if that's a factor here?

MURRAY: Absolutely. I mean, meeting, again, clinically examining him, you could weigh that in. It's important to know that concussion can cause individuals that suffer from them to have foggy-headedness and slower thought. But moreover, in my mind, I often teach my students that it's also putting the whole picture in context and saying, is there something underlying that's causing the fall to begin with that led to the concussion? And how do we connect all of those dots? But saying that concussion can play a role - absolutely.

KELLY: I want to note that Dr. Brian Monahan, the attending physician at the U.S. Congress, said today he has consulted with Senator McConnell, also with his neurology team. He's cleared the senator to continue with his schedule as planned. Dr. Murray, does anything you have seen reviewing videos of these incidents - anything you've seen raise questions in your mind about Senator McConnell's ability to do his job?

MURRAY: No, not at all, Mary Louise. I mean, I think, again, it's really hard to make a snap judgment off of an episode. The thing that I would want to emphasize is to say that whether somebody has a medical problem, even a neurologic problem, doesn't actually mean they are - would be at concern of not being able to do their job. To me, it's not just about, can he do his job? You know, if he is cleared by medical experts to do his job, great. It's more about, is he healthy? Is he well? Is he functioning as best as he possibly can? And that really is the emphasis of saying that he needs to seek out whatever medical care he needs and get the right diagnosis and - so that ultimately he can he can truly have the best quality of life possible and then, with that, function at his highest capacity. Clearly he's a high-functioning individual. And at no point does any medical problem really directly put that in jeopardy, especially if correctly diagnosed and managed.

KELLY: Dr. Ann Murray is a professor of neurology at West Virginia University. Dr. Murray, thanks for your time.

MURRAY: Thank you so much, Mary Louise. It was wonderful. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kira Wakeam
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.