The Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders had a heart procedure for a blocked artery Tuesday night, and has put his campaign on hold while he recovers.
CNN reports that Sanders’s senior adviser, Jeff Weaver, delivered the news via conference call on Wednesday morning. According to Weaver, Sanders, who experienced chest discomfort during an event Tuesday evening, had “a blockage in one artery, and two stents were successfully inserted.” Weaver added that “Sanders is conversing and in good spirits. He will be resting up over the next few days.”
Tweeting from his hospital bed Wednesday, Sanders said that he was “feeling good,” and took the opportunity to highlight one of his key campaign promises: “None of us know when a medical emergency might affect us. And no one should fear going bankrupt if it occurs. Medicare for all!”
What Is an Arterial Blockage, and How Serious Is It?
An arterial blockage, such as the one affecting Sanders, can result from a condition known as atherosclerosis, where plaque builds up in the arteries and reduces blood flow, according to Texas Heart Institute. The condition can lead to heart attacks, stroke, and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
Although Sanders has no reported history of heart disease, doctors agree that his medical condition is typical for men his age.
“It’s certainly not unusual for a 78-year-old man to develop coronary disease and to require a coronary stent,” says William Fearon, MD, a professor of cardiovascular medicine at the Stanford University Medical Center in California. “It’s one of the most common conditions that we face as we get older.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, coronary heart disease (CHD) is the most common type of heart disease and kills more than 370,000 people annually.
“Unfortunately, these kinds of symptoms can emerge really out of the blue. And that’s why we tell people that if they’re experiencing chest pain, if they’re experiencing shortness of breath, the kind of symptoms that might be referable to your heart, it’s a good idea to check with your healthcare professional,” said Robert Harrington, MD, a cardiologist at Stanford University and the president of the American Heart Association (AHA), in a news statement.
Although Sanders’s campaign won’t say whether or not the senator had a heart attack, Sanders was in good health and had no history of cardiovascular disease, according to a 2016 letter from his doctor. The doctor did note, though, that his cholesterol numbers were high.
What Is a Stent?
According to the AHA, a stent is a small metallic mesh tube that supports the artery from the inside. It provides a framework to keep the artery structurally sound. Dr. Fearon describes it as “a scaffold to open up a narrowing and keep it open.”
The procedure used to insert the stent is known as angioplasty, and according to Fearon, it’s “minimally invasive.” Once correctly placed inside the artery, a balloon catheter is inflated inside the stent in order to expand it to the correct dimensions to keep the artery open and free of blockages. The balloon catheter is then removed, but the stent remains for support, he says, and eventually it becomes part of the arterial wall as the vessel grows back around it.
What’s Next for Sanders?
Fearon notes that the recovery from stenting is “fairly rapid” and that patients are often discharged on the same day in cases of stable coronary disease. The speed of recovery depends on a patient’s overall health and whether or not they had a heart attack. Fearon notes that a person’s age does not necessarily dictate how long the recovery process will take.
“If you have a very fit 78-year-old, that person should be able to recover quite well,” he says.
Fearon adds that a proactive approach to heart health will likely be necessary for Sanders from now on.
“In any patient who’s had an event like this, we want to be very aggressive with lifestyle and medical therapy,” he says. “Key things would be keeping cholesterol levels as low as possible, making sure blood pressure is well-controlled, and if a patient has diabetes, making sure their blood sugar levels are very well-controlled.”
Will Sanders Be Able to Continue Campaigning?
There has been plenty of speculation as to what this means for the senator’s presidential campaign. As Fearon notes, “It’s a difficult question to answer, and it’s something that he and his physicians will address at the appropriate time.”
As the Associated Press reported Thursday afternoon, a campaign spokeswoman, Sarah Ford, reassured supporters that the senator will still be participating in the next Democratic presidential debate on October 15 in Ohio.
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