Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s office disclosed on Thursday details about her health condition, as she returned to the Senate after a nearly three-month-long absence due to shingles.
Feinstein (D-Calif.), 89, was suffering from shingles virus this year that led to the emergence of two complications, Ramsay Hunt syndrome and encephalitis. Ramsay Hunt syndrome can lead to partial facial paralysis.
Previously, the senator’s office had only disclosed that she was suffering from complications from the virus.
Feinstein returned to the Senate on May 10, after questions regarding her health and calls for her resignation from the Democratic side.
Feinstein said on May 10 after her return to Washington that she would work a lighter schedule and that she was experiencing some side effects of her illness, which included vision and balance impairments.
“I’m back in Washington, voting and attending committee meetings while I recover from complications related to a shingles diagnosis,” Feinstein said in a statement provided earlier on Thursday to The New York Times. “I continue to work and get results for California.”
Her return to the chamber restores the Democrats’ 51–49 majority.
Adam Russell, a spokesman for Feinstein, said that the encephalitis, or inflammation of the brain, “resolved itself shortly after she was released from the hospital in March.” Feinstein continues to have complications from the Ramsay Hunt syndrome, Russell said.
Russell confirmed the two complications after The New York Times first reported them, raising questions about whether she had been hiding the extent of her illnesses. Upon her return last week, Feinstein was using a wheelchair and was noticeably thinner, and has appeared confused at times when speaking to reporters or being wheeled through the halls.
Feinstein’s face has appeared partially paralyzed since she returned to the Senate, stirring some speculation about whether she had had a stroke. Ramsay Hunt syndrome is a complication that occurs when the shingles virus reaches a facial nerve near the ears. It can also cause hearing loss.
Encephalitis can also be caused by shingles. The swelling of the brain can have a number of different symptoms, including personality changes, seizures, stiffness, confusion, and problems with sight or hearing, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Since she has returned, Feinstein has missed some votes where she was not needed. On Wednesday, for example, she missed the first three Senate votes of the day but appeared for the last two, in which the margin was much closer.
Feinstein has faced questions for several years about her clearly declining health and her mental acuity. In February, Feinstein said she would not run for reelection in 2024, after Rep. Katie Porter (D-Calif.) announced she would run against Feinstein in a primary.
But some Democrats have pushed for her to leave sooner. A member of the California congressional delegation, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), called on her to resign as she stayed away from Washington for more than ten weeks, and several other House Democrats have echoed his call. And Senate Democrats were increasingly anxious during Feinstein’s absence as they were unable to confirm some of President Joe Biden’s judicial nominees.
As Democrats worried, Feinstein made an unusual request to be temporarily replaced on the Judiciary Committee while she remained out of the Senate. But Republicans last month blocked a vote, saying there was little precedent for a temporary committee replacement and that they didn’t want to help Democrats confirm the most partisan judges.
Two weeks later, Democrats said that Feinstein would return to Washington.
Democrats are expected to need every vote they can get in the upcoming fight to raise the U.S. debt ceiling, which put even more pressure on Feinstein to either return or resign and allow California Gov. Gavin Newsom to appoint a replacement.
Feinstein told reporters this week that she hadn’t been away from Washington despite her being hospitalized and not at the Capitol for the past months, triggering questions about her capacity to legislate.
“No, I haven’t been gone,” Feinstein said when a reporter asked her about what her colleagues told her after she returned to the Capitol last week. “You should—I haven’t been gone. I’ve been working.”
A reporter then asked if she was working at home or voting in the Senate. Feinstein said that she was working in Washington.
“No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting,” Feinstein stated in response. “Please. You either know or don’t know.”
A senator for more than three decades, Feinstein served as president of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors in the 1970s and as mayor of San Francisco. She ascended to that post after the November 1978 assassinations of then-Mayor George Moscone and City Supervisor Harvey Milk by a former supervisor, Dan White.
In the Senate, she was the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee and the Judiciary Committee’s top Democrat.
Reuters, The Associated Press, and Jack Phillips contributed to this report.
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