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


Mary Louise Kelly, Host: Yesterday, one of Washington’s most powerful men was literally and briefly speechless. Mitch McConnell, Senate Minority leader, froze and remained silent while taking questions from reporters. He gripped the lectern for approximately 30 seconds. An aide tried to help.


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


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: All right. I’m sorry, you all. We need a moment. Senator…

KELLY: McConnell eventually appeared to recover. He took two more questions. Later, his spokesperson said that he had been temporarily lightheaded. A similar incident happened last month. We called Dr. Ann Murray. Welcome, Dr. Murray.

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

KELLY: Understanding that you have not examined Senator McConnell – just briefly tick through what’s the range of things that may be going on here. 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. This was, to me at least, the most alarming part – putting it in the context of recent events when Senator McConnell clearly wasn’t feeling himself. 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’re right, you should never guess about someone’s health without a complete history and examination. It is still 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. After a spring fall that resulted in a concussion and a broken bone, McConnell missed almost six weeks of his job. Is there a way to determine if the concussion is a factor in this case?

MURRAY : Yes. You could consider that by meeting him again and clinically examining his condition. Concussions can lead to foggy thinking and slowness of thought. In my mind, however, I also teach my students to put the entire picture into context, and ask, was there a underlying cause of the fall that caused the concussion to begin with? How do we connect the 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 has cleared Senator McConnell to carry on with his scheduled. Do you think that Senator McConnell is capable of doing his job based on what you have seen in the videos? It’s hard to judge a situation based on a single incident. It is important to note that a person’s medical condition, or even a neurological problem, does not necessarily mean that they will be unable to perform their job. It’s not only about whether he can do his job. If he’s cleared by doctors to perform his duties, that’s great. Is he healthy? Is he healthy? Does he function as well as possible? It is important that he seeks out the medical attention he requires and gets the correct diagnosis so that he has the best possible quality of life and can function at his maximum capacity. He’s clearly a highly-functioning person. 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. Mary Louise, thank you for your time. It was wonderful.

Copyright (c) 2023 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text is not in its final version and could be revised or updated in the future. Accuracy and accessibility may vary. Audio recordings are the definitive record of NPR programming.