When Senator Ben Ray Luján got out of bed at 6:15 on the morning of Jan. 27, the world was spinning.
“As soon as I stood up, it felt like vertigo,” he recalled in an interview in his Senate office, one of only a few the New Mexico Democrat has given since suffering a stroke that could have killed him. The stakes stretched far beyond him: News had just emerged that President Biden would have a Supreme Court nomination, and Democrats in the narrowly divided Senate would desperately need his vote to confirm a new liberal justice.
At the time, he knew something was wrong with his body, but not what. He lay back down and closed his eyes for another half-hour or so, then tried to get up again. More spinning.
He called his chief of staff, Carlos Sanchez, who urged him to inform his doctor immediately.
“You need to go to the emergency room,” the doctor said.
At that point, Luján said, “I really wasn’t able to walk.”
He remembers “crawling around” on the floor, the vertigo was so bad. His sister Jackie, who lives nearby, soon arrived to help.
“I need your strength,” he told her. She grabbed a broomstick for support, helped him down the stairs in front of his house and helped him get to the hospital, 30 minutes away in Santa Fe.
Soon, he was on his way to a larger medical facility in Albuquerque.
“You could see the fear in her eyes,” Luján said. “I still remember that.”
‘This came out of the blue’
It’s a moment I can recognize.
Two days before Election Day in 2020, I had a thalamic ischemic stroke that left me temporarily unable to walk. I was hospitalized for two weeks.
I distinctly remember, as my family dropped me off at the emergency room, holding onto my wife’s hand as she touched the left side of my face. It was numb and tingling, and I wasn’t sure if I would live or die, let alone feel normal again.
Luján’s stroke was a similar shock. At 49, he’s one of the Senate’s younger members. “This came out of the blue,” he said. “I did not have early warning signs. I was pretty physically active.”
It was a reminder, he said, that “every one of us goes through challenges. We all have nightmares. Something bad can happen in our life.”
Like me, Luján didn’t make it to the hospital in time to break up the blood clot. May is National Stroke Awareness Month, and he wants others to know the warning signs.
Down the middle of the back of his skull, Luján still bears the scar of the surgery that relieved the pressure on his cerebellum, the part of the brain that affects balance and posture. After several days of close observation, doctors decided to remove a portion of his skull the size of a silver dollar.
The surgeons described the procedure in a video Luján released on Feb. 13, a little over two weeks after the stroke.
Though he still has some tingling in his right hand, the scar is the only visible sign of what happened. His speech is rapid and completely fluid.
“I feel like I’ve come back stronger,” he said, joking that the stroke had helped him drop a few pounds. “I fit into my clothing better.”
A huge vote and a tough recovery
With Democrats holding the barest control of the Senate, the stroke threatened to do more than upend Luján’s life. If he weren’t able to return, the party might have needed to delay a vote on President Biden’s Supreme Court nominee, risking her confirmation.
“I need to get out of here,” Luján recalled thinking. “I need to be able to cast that vote, because in my head, I was the one that was going to prevent this from happening. And you didn’t want that on your shoulders, right? That was bad for the country.”
He said he was “very proud” to cast his vote for Ketanji Brown Jackson, who will become the first Black woman to join the Supreme Court, only a few weeks after leaving the hospital.
Luján is an increasingly rare figure in a polarized Washington. He’s universally known in the Senate as a kind and thoughtful colleague, someone who builds relationships with adversaries, seeks out bipartisan projects and gives a cheery hello to everyone he passes in the hallways.
A 2019 Politico profile of Luján, written while he was still an up-and-coming lawmaker, carried the headline, “Can a nice guy like Ben Ray Luján elbow his way to the top?” Ultimately, he decided to run for Senate in 2020 instead of climbing the leadership ranks in the House.
While he was in the hospital, he received texts from Republican colleagues, even those he didn’t know well. “Several of them would reach out to me every day,” he said. “Just: ‘Hey, man, you’re on my mind. Checking on you. Sending you love and support.’”
Rehabilitation was hard. At times, his body wanted to steer him to the left. His physical therapists would test him by walking backward or trying to nudge him off-balance. “I kept telling them, ‘No one can do this!’” he said.
At one low point, he balked at what he was being asked to do. One nurse, a young man named Tyler, told him, “Look, Ben, you can be your own worst enemy, or you can choose to get better.”
He took that advice to heart, and his recovery has been remarkably swift — “miraculous,” he said. He attributes it to prayer, good doctors, the support of loved ones and the power of positive thinking. But Luján’s experience has left him determined to make a mark in the world.
“Having survived this, I know that there’s a lot of work I still have to do,” he said. “And I plan to do it.”
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