WEB UPDATE: U.S. senator undergoes brain surgery at GW Hospital

Posted Thursday, Dec. 14, 3:54 p.m.
Updated Tuesday, Dec. 26, 6:35 p.m.

The balance of power in the legislative branch of the federal government is in the hands of GW doctors.

U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) underwent brain surgery late Dec. 13 after being rushed to GW Hospital in the afternoon for experiencing stroke-like symptoms. Should Johnson not be able to continue his position in the Senate, South Dakota Gov. Mike Round, a Republican, would appoint a replacement. Doctors have called the surgery “a success” throughout the past few weeks.

Choosing a fellow member of the GOP would shift control of the Senate from the Democrats’ 51-49 majority to 50-50. In the event of a split vote on a bill, Vice President Dick Cheney would break the tie.

Admiral John Eisold, attending physician of the United States Capitol, said in a statement released by the senator’s office that doctors found bleeding within Johnson’s brain. The condition, called a congenital arteriovenous malformation, has been with the 59-year-old since birth.

“He underwent successful surgery to evacuate the blood and stabilize the malformation,” Eisold said in the statement. “The senator is recovering without complication in the critical care unit at George Washington University Hospital. It is premature to determine whether further surgery will be required or to assess any long term prognosis.”

The surgical team included Dr. Vivek Deshmukh, a neurosurgeon at GW Medical Center; Dr. Anthony Caputy, chairman of the Department of Neurosurgery and a GW professor; and Dr. Anthony Venbrux, director of Cardiovascular and Interventional Radiology and a GW professor.

Johnson remains in the hospital’s intensive care unit, where doctors say he is in critical but stable condition. He receives regular CAT scans of his head to ensure that the swelling on his brain and bleeding within it is gone.

“Considering his initial presentation, his progress is encouraging.” Caputy said in a statement from Johnson’s office. “He is now stabilized and continues to show signs of responsiveness to the medical staff and the family.

“Much like a bruise, it takes time to heal,” Caputy said of the post-operative state of the senator’s brain.

An arteriovenous malformation is a disorder characterized by a complex, tangled web of arteries and veins, according to the Medical College of Wisconsin Web site.

“An AVM may occur in the brain, brainstem or spinal cord and is caused by abnormal development of blood vessels,” the site states. “The most common symptoms of AVM include hemorrhaging (bleeding), seizures, headaches and neurological problems such as paralysis or loss of speech, memory or vision.”

On Wednesday morning, the senator was having a telephone meeting with South Dakota reporters when “his speech pattern slipped off,” Johnson spokesperson Julianne Fisher told CNN. She said Johnson complained of pain in his right arm and then the Capitol physician was summoned, who advised the senator go to the hospital for further treatment.

Dr. John “Skip” Williams, provost and vice president of health affairs at GW, said the senator is receiving the best treatment possible at the hospital.

“We have an excellent faculty of medicine, with both full time faculty and voluntary faculty. Many are known nationally and internationally,” he said in an e-mail Thursday evening. “The hospital is first-class with a dynamic physician CEO and an outstanding staff of nurses, physicians and staff. The Senator couldn’t be in better hands!”

Williams added that prominent politicians have come to GW Hospital over the years because of its physical proximity to centers of power and because of its “excellent reputation.” President Ronald Reagan was brought to the hospital when he was shot by would-be assassin John Hinckley in 1981, and Vice President Dick Cheney has come in on several occasions for his heart condition. The hospital is considered a level-one trauma center, which is capable of treating any type of medical emergency.

U.S. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), the Senate’s outgoing majority leader and a medical doctor, visited Johnson the afternoon after he had surgery.

“I’m very, very pleased with the progress,” Frist told The Hatchet outside the hospital. He declined to give specifics about the senator’s condition and would not respond to a question about Johnson’s consciousness.

Robert Chernak, GW’s senior vice president of Student and Academic Support Services, who was at the hospital the same afternoon, described the facility as very tightly controlled.

“It was so hard to get into the hospital … They had all this security,” he said in a telephone interview. “I showed my credentials … The lady looked at it like 10 times.

“I must have looked like a member of the media,” he jokingly added. Since Wednesday afternoon, dozens of local reporters and national news correspondents descended upon Foggy Bottom, broadcasting live outside the hospital.

Chernak said he has “a lot of confidence in the medical staff of the hospital.”

Barbara Johnson, wife of Senator Johnson, said in a statement that her family is hoping for the best.

“The Johnson family is encouraged and optimistic. They are grateful for the prayers and good wishes of friends, supporters and South Dakotans. They are especially grateful for the work of the doctors and all medical personnel and GWU Hospital.”

Spokespeople for GW Hospital and the GW Medical Center declined to comment on Johnson’s condition. Specialists with GW’s neurosurgery department would not give background information about congenital arteriovenous malformations.

-Ben Solomon contributed to this report.

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