Specter Still at Top of His Game
Senator Shares Story of His Health Triumphs
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has gathered more than a few stories of campaigns, prosecutions and legislative battles over his 40-year career in politics. But the Senator already has told many of those stories; they were the subject of his 2000 book, “Passion for Truth.”
Specter’s latest endeavor, “Never Give In,” is a much more serious tale. The book, released last week, is the story of the Senator’s recovery from Hodgkin’s disease and a dangerous heart operation, and his handling of two false medical alarms.
The book has strictly one purpose, Specter said in an interview: “To tell people about my experience to try to give them some suggestions on how to handle their own problems.”
Specter was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s in 2005, just after he won a bruising re-election battle and fulfilled his longtime ambition of becoming chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
Timing had it that Specter simultaneously received chemotherapy and handled Senate combat over judicial nominees. There are numerous images of a hairless chairman managing testy committee hearings.
Specter says he believes the furious pace of his Senate work actually helped him conquer the illness.
“In a sense, the tougher the day, the better I liked it,” he writes. “It kept my mind off me.”
Squash matches were an important part of his recovery, too.
Having played “virtually every day since October 1970” with partners including the late Sen. John Chafee (R-R.I.), Specter maintained his squash-playing even during chemotherapy, though he cut back to two or three matches per week.
Now Specter is back to his daily schedule, playing with everyone from old friends to young staffers.
“I used to say that squash was the most important thing I did each day,” Specter writes. “Now I say it is the only important thing I do every day.”
Specter said he hopes others can learn from his story.
“When I was going through it, I got a lot of letters from people telling me that they were encouraged by my experience and how I stayed on the job and functioned even with chemotherapy,” he said. “I thought if people would see how I handled it, they might follow some of my suggestions and find it a little easier themselves.”
The book also draws lessons from Specter’s earlier health issues.
In 1979, a year before he was elected to the Senate, Specter experienced pain in his arm and was falsely diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. It turned out the misdiagnosis was the simple consequence of his childhood case of polio, which led to a false EEG reading.
Then in 1993 Specter was misdiagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and told — the week of his 40th wedding anniversary — that he had at most six weeks to live. After surgery, doctors determined the tumor was benign.
“One of my fundamental recommendations is to get a second opinion,” Specter said.
Even if you have a great health care plan, “Sometimes doctors are wrong, and they can be wrong for a Senator like they can be for anybody else,” he added.
Specter had a real scare in 1998, when complications from double-bypass heart surgery led to a “code blue” classification and his heart stopped for a few seconds. But he recovered from that and won re-election the same year, too.
Specter’s ordeals clearly have gained him added respect from Senate colleagues of both parties. The book jacket includes praise from Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin (Iowa) and Joseph Biden (Del.), who frequently rides Amtrak home from Washington with Specter.
The illnesses also have affected his legislative priorities, including his support for the National Institutes of Health. As the top Republican on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education, he has influence over NIH’s budget.
“I was pushing for increased funding for NIH going back to the time I became chairman in 1995, which was 10 years before I got Hodgkin’s,” he said, “but my experience with Hodgkin’s has given me greater insights into what it’s like to have the illness in quite a number of respects.”
Specter added that he has been able to persuade some Republicans — including ones who, unlike him, oppose abortion rights — to support federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research.
The Senator has been raising money for a re-election bid in 2010, when he will be 80. Considering all that he’s been through, is he really running again?
“Absolutely,” he said. “I’m at the top of my game.”