(WASHINGTON) — It was a cold, sunny morning in late January when Sen. Ben Ray Lujan awoke on his farm in New Mexico. His girlfriend was leaving early for a visit with friends, and he had set the alarm for 5:45 a.m.
Lujan got up, made coffee, and helped out with packing the car. After seeing his girlfriend off, he headed back to bed for a bit more shut-eye.
“I got up at 6:15 a.m. So, half hour went by, I felt completely normal. Nothing was wrong,” the 49-year-old New Mexico Democrat recounted to ABC News in an exclusive interview for Good Morning America.
The freshman senator would soon learn that he had suffered a stroke in the cerebellum, the part of the brain that controls balance. Extreme dizziness hitting him to such a degree that he would find himself crawling on his hands and knees. This ambitious former longtime House member once on a track potentially to the speakership, would have his life turned upside-down by a potentially deadly medical event, a moment that has sparked new meaning and new focus for the rising political star.
“I just, when I wake up and when I sit in the bed, the world’s spinning, but not spinning such that I don’t have my legs. I could still get up, but it was spinning so I was moving around a little bit right? The only thing I can compare it to is when you’re on a merry-go-round or something. You get off and you’re trying to catch those legs,” Lujan explained to ABC News Congressional Correspondent Rachel Scott. “Went to the restroom, came back, closed my eyes for another 35 to 45 minutes and woke up because something felt funny. When I sat up that time, the room was like on its side, it felt like. It was topsy-turvy, and I was feeling the weakness.”
The harrowing account — the senator’s first — comes as the U.S. marks National Stroke Awareness month in May. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, every 40 seconds someone in the U.S. has a stroke, and every three and a half minutes someone dies from it. While the senator is relatively young and in good health, an avid mountain biker, the CDC states that strokes can occur at any age, though the chance of having one increases as we grow older. And though death rates have been declining for most races and ethnicities over the years, Hispanics — like Lujan — have seen an increase in death rates since 2013.
Still, Lujan’s medical team does not know why he had the stroke.
As the senator’s world was spinning that Thursday morning and he was quickly losing strength, Lujan placed a crucial call to his chief of staff, Carlos Sanchez, who told his boss to contact his doctor immediately, a move that was likely life-saving. Lujan’s doctor, in turn, told him to get to an emergency room immediately, a critical decision.
“I called my sister, told her what was going on and by the time she got there — which wasn’t long thereafter — I went from being able to move around the house, wobbly and hitting walls, to crawling,” Lujan recounted as he moved to the edge of his seat, his hands at times clenched as the memories flooded back.
When the senator opened the door for his sister, Jackie, that morning, the fear in her eyes said it all.
“She had a lot of panic in her eyes, which I still remember the way she looked at me, and I said we got to go, but I need your help,” as the senator was unable to walk.
“She’s a little, she’s shorter than I am, but she was able to prop me on her shoulder and then as we went out the door, I told her, ‘I can’t walk,’ and she grabbed a broom, I think, or a stick that was on my front porch, and she said to use this on your other hand. ‘We’ll get you there."”
On the way to the hospital, the senator’s sister spotted some firefighters outside their building. She pulled into the station and asked one of them to come and look at her ailing brother. Not liking what they saw, Lujan was quickly loaded into a nearby ambulance and rushed to the emergency room at Christus St. Vincent Regional Hospital in Santa Fe where the doctors would have him quickly transferred to the state’s only comprehensive stroke center at the University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque for further evaluation.
All of the swift action decisive in his ultimate recovery.
Dr. Diana Greene-Chandos, Lujan’s neurologist, would later explain in a video tweeted out by the senator that the team discovered the cause of the stroke, a tear in Lujan’s vertebral artery, adding, “We did determine that medication would not be enough, and Senator Luhan underwent decompressive surgery to relieve the pressure in his brain.”
That diagnosis of a stroke for the 49-year-old New Mexican was a total shock.
“I never thought it was a stroke. Even as I was going to the hospital, I just thought I wasn’t feeling well. And a stroke hitting me, that wasn’t on my mind at all,” Lujan said.
To date, Lujan said, doctors are still not sure what ultimately caused the tear in his arteries.
“I had gone for a long mountain bike ride a few days before we had a freak snowstorm so I was shoveling snow for myself and mom for a couple hours. Two days before you know just normal weightlifting with kettlebells. I was working doing interviews and constituent meetings the day before. So they could not pinpoint something that this is what caused it. This is what triggered it,” Lujan remembered.
Over that late January weekend, surgeons removed a silver dollar size portion of the senator’s skull to allow the brain to swell and then heal.
“I don’t remember much coming out of the recovery, because they put me under to do this, but as I came out, you know, I was fortunate. My sister, Jackie, who took me to the hospital and she’s been with me a lot and then my partner, Dawn, she’s been with me as well. She came in a few days later. But it was that comfort, as well. And it was frightening, right?” said Lujan, feeling gingerly for the still-visible scar at the nape of his neck.
While a stroke can often be associated with a loss of motion or facial muscles, Lujan stressed to ABC News that he never lost motor movement or his voice throughout his entire ordeal. “I was a little weak on the left. I was wobbly. I didn’t have that balance,” the senator noted, which made physical therapy a challenge.
His most difficult day, he recalled, was that day he emerged from the life-saving surgery.
“I think that’s where it really set into me, like, this is serious. You know, granted, you’re there in a hospital room in an ICU. You’re connected to IVs. You got folks checking on you. But coming out of that surgery, I had staples on the back over here,” Lujan said, again touching his scar through his buzzed hair now growing out in the weeks after surgery. “Wasn’t allowed to touch it, right? Because you don’t want to mess with anything. And that’s when it set in, like, no, this is serious. Like, you got to fight on your hands. And it was tough.”
But Lujan gave his therapists a set of goals from the outset.
“I said I want to walk, I want to dance, and I want to ride my mountain bike again, and they said ‘well, we’re gonna help you hit all those goals,"” the senator said.
Therapists had Lujan performing balancing techniques, doing squats, riding the stationary bike, and even jogging, something that was painful, at first.
“Jogging was tough, because every time I would jolt, it would hurt back here where they did the work on me. But now that’s all gone,” said Lujan, who is still completing his therapy and has yet to get on his mountain bike. “They have me doing, you know, shoulder shrugs and pull ups, and they’re working on all that upper body strength. And it’s just, it’s special, but the best part of it is the people you’re working with.”
One nurse, in particular, pushed Lujan through the difficult moments in therapy. When Lujan did not feel like pushing, the nurse — named Tyler — told him, ‘You can be your own worst enemy and just stay here and not get better, or you can be positive. And you can take every day in that positive light and be positive with everything going on and get better,’ and it just stuck with me,” Lujan remembered, the emotion palpable in his voice.
The senator said the positive thinking made a true difference, but Lujan, a devout Catholic, also drew on his faith, telling ABC News he prayed daily, something that also helped with the intense feelings of loneliness that can permeate a sterile intensive care unit.
“It’s tough. People go through tough times during this, and there were people around me that passed away while they were trying to get care when the therapists were walking me around. I was often the only person walking around. Others were there behind closed doors. Some I don’t know if they had visitors and my family and my faith.”
It is that feeling of wanting to help others that aides say has Lujan and his team now looking for legislative and advocacy options. Lujan also said he plans to speak out to educate others about the risks of stroke and the importance of early detection.
The American Stroke Association uses the acronym, FAST, which stands for Face drooping; Arm weakness; Speech difficulty; and Time to call 9-1-1, emergency services, if these symptoms are observed.
As dramatic as the medical events were that played out far from Washington in January, the public and political world was none the wiser. It would take five days before Lujan’s condition was made public. The freshman senator’s chief of staff released a brief statement breaking the news, sending a seismic political jolt through the nation’s capital and an evenly-split Senate where Democratic leaders often say they are merely ‘a heartbeat away from the minority.’
Addressing the delay for the first time, Lujan told ABC News exclusively, “We put a press release out, I think it was the fifth day after I had the signs of that stroke on the 27th, and the reason for that was the docs told me you need a few days for us to give you an accurate portrayal of what your future may be like or what’s the outcome here. We don’t know where you’re going to do surgery yet, either. So, on the fifth day, they gave me and Carlos and my comms team an assessment. So we put a statement out to make sure everyone knew what was going on.”
But Lujan said the pressure from Washington, and the political machinations over how a Democratic absence might shift the balance of power in the Senate, never affected him and his recovery, this despite an historic Supreme Court nomination that would soon be announced for which Lujan’s vote might have proved decisive.
“Everyone knew that the Supreme Court nomination was on its way, and so one of the motivations for me even was you need to get better because you can’t miss that vote. And you need to get there, that’s your obligation,” said Lujan.
Lujan, a rising political star, manages to be both a fierce political strategist while also a humble man from humble roots, a member, along with Sen. Raphael Warnock, D-Ga., of the self-described “Head Start Caucus” — a reference to having been poor and in need of government assistance as children.
The senator is so beloved by his colleagues on both sides of the aisle, that they flooded his inbox with messages of support, something that the senator says was invaluable to his recovery.
One Senate colleague, in particular, Cory Booker of New Jersey, stood out, taking it upon himself to send daily, uplifting selfie videos to Lujan, sometimes corralling his Senate colleagues to join in, a generosity that brought the freshman senator to tears.
“I looked forward to them, and the first time I saw them, I was bawling,” Lujan recalled.
“Senator Booker has an incredible way about him and for someone of his stature to stop what they’re doing,” Lujan said, choking back tears. “Sorry. For someone of Cory’s stature to stop what they’re doing and tell you a story. And he was even getting, you know, Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the way to votes to say hello and whatnot…I think that’s an example of the kind of humanity and generosity that you see from other people. And this way with people that are busy, and they took time to truly check in on me and see how I was doing, and it was genuine.”
In one video, shared exclusively with ABC News by Booker’s office, prayers and words of encouragement were offered by Lujan’s “Head Start caucus” colleague, Raphael Warnock, who is also a pastor at the storied Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, featured in another, sending well wishes and prayers, with a smiling Booker adding of his Mormon colleague, “And I can say he’s got powerful prayers.”
“Hey, Ben Ray. Get better soon,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said in a third video, flashing a thumbs up as Sen. Alex Padilla, D-Calif., photo bombed the moment.
It’s a generosity and selflessness that Sen. Lujan said he’s anxious to share with others, a profound lesson from his stroke, among many that he said would stay with him.
“How many people do we see on the street that need help or elsewhere in the world? And we people are so busy. We just walked by them and you ignore them? Even if you can’t help them, smile. Say, ‘Good morning. Good afternoon.’ Right?” Lujan asked rhetorically, passion rising in his voice. “Because that humanity might save their lives. They know that they’re being seen. They know they’re worth something. And it’s just one of those reminders to me of how much more patient we can be as a society, how much more caring we can be. And something that we can give away for free, which is the smile or gesture to change everything.”
He has also been especially touched by people who have had strokes but never made them public, willing to share their experience to help him, or others who have offered advice along the way on what to expect.
“Take time to get better, right? Sleep matters. Listen to your therapists. Do what they tell you to do. Take your medicine. A lot of people have told me that one,” recalled Lujan. “But since that stroke, and since I’ve come back, I’m able to be even more present than I’ve been. I’m able to appreciate where I am or the people that I’m meeting more.”
Perhaps difficult for an ambitious politician, Lujan said he’s trying to be more patient, though having nearly recovered fully from the stroke, he is anxious “to push, because you have so much to deliver and a short time to get it done. But you treat more people with that respect and dignity, and I hope people thought that I did that already, but I’m more aware of it, and you just be good, right? Trying to make a difference. Be positive.”
He has clearly learned a lot from the life-changing experience, but as he has shared his experience with others, including with other stroke victims, one thing has also solidified in his mind — that on that cold January day, something bigger than Lujan saved him.
“A lot of them told me that they waited too long, that they tried to get better for a couple of days. And for whatever reason, even though I think that’s my natural inclination, I didn’t do that this time. Someone was looking out for me, something motivated me. And, you know, a lot of people saved my life and, you know, God is watching over me. God is good.”
The senator returned to his job in Washington full time just five weeks after his stroke, his colleagues greeting him with a standing ovation as he walked into a Senate Commerce Committee hearing. He joked with reporters afterward about his new “buzz cut” hairdo, later voting on the Senate floor for the first time in more than a month, his colleagues warmly embracing him.
The senator, who has kept a low profile since the, is not quite back to 100%, but he says he is close and has passed major milestones, including an annual, 9-mile pilgrimage in his home state he recently conquered just before Easter.
“For me, that was a big milestone, because I have a lot to be grateful for, a lot to pray for. And while I didn’t walk as far as I normally do, I did it from my home. So just under 9 miles, but nonetheless a lot of folks said we didn’t know if you can do it, and that’s just one of those times that are important to me, that I was able to still meet it, and it just begins to describe the recovery,” Lujan said.
And while Lujan is not yet back on his mountain bike, something he says he plans to do soon, he told ABC News that he is feeling stronger every day.
“I won’t say I’m 100 percent yet, because I haven’t gotten on my mountain bike once I do that, and I think that I’m there I can tell you that I’m stronger. I feel stronger every day that goes by. I feel better. You know, you can see that I’ve not lost my speech, although some of my friends maybe had hoped that that might be the case. But I’m able to engage in debate and thought and conversation and do that work. And I feel physically stronger as well. So I’ve been blessed that I’m getting better and that I’m almost there. So keep praying for me.”
ABC News’ Lalee Ibssa contributed to this report.
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