The limping legislator
Since hurtling 300 feet down a ski slope at Alaska’s Alyeska Resort in March, Lisa Murkowski has been limping around Capitol Hill. It’s been a complete pain in the neck — well, the knee — but the senator has come to notice a distinct upside to wielding crutches in Congress.
“It definitely creates conversation with members I wouldn’t typically have interactions with,” says the Alaska Republican. “They will come up to me and ask me how I am.”
A few weeks ago, en route from the Senate chamber to an Energy Committee meeting, Murkowski faced the challenge of navigating an escalator for the first time since her big fall. She was leery, but Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.) — who happens to be an orthopedic surgeon — was walking with her.
He gave her one of those “trust me, I’m a doctor” lines, then proceeded to show Murkowski how to balance her weight on her crutches so she could manage the ascent. Sure enough, she did.
Murkowski says she’s experienced a slew of these sweet, neighborly moments with colleagues since tearing her anterior cruciate ligament, medial collateral ligament and lateral meniscus. But that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been challenges.
The Capitol isn’t the best place for rest and rehab.
“I’m supposed to have my leg up most of the time,” Murkowski said recently as she sat on a couch in her office, sporting moccasins, with her injured leg propped up on two throw pillows. After a few moments, a staffer arrived with a large zip-lock bag of melted ice.
“I’m supposed to be icing it, and I have no time,” Murkowski said. “I am sitting in hearings where my leg is down. I can’t stretch it out. I am doing everything wrong for my knee with my day-to-day stuff.”
Then there’s the labyrinth of freight elevators and hallways Murkowski has had to navigate in order to get from her office in Hart to the rest of the campus while avoiding steep staircases and, until most recently, escalators.
Eva Malecki, spokeswoman for the Architect of the Capitol, says that because of the historic nature of the buildings under the AOC’s auspices, meeting Americans With Disabilities Act standards “is not always straightforward.”
“Careful and thorough studies must be completed to ensure that solutions are developed that provide accessibility and safe means of egress while maintaining and protecting the unique architectural features and priceless artwork in these buildings.”
As of today, Malecki notes, all the public restrooms in the Capitol are ADA compliant, new sidewalk ramps have been constructed around the premises and handicap-accessible entrances have been fashioned at four Capitol entrances.
Despite the extra trouble getting around, Murkowski says she has missed only one vote on account of her less-than-mobile state.
Meanwhile, the senator has received a “personal crash course” on the health care system, she says, as Congress prepares to tackle the issue. She’s gotten to know the congressional pages quite well, as she has often relied on them to assist her off the Senate floor.
In much the same way, she’s gotten to know a number of her Senate colleagues, including several on the other side of the aisle with whom she figures she never would have talked much if it weren’t for her injury.
On several occasions, a fellow senator has approached her with a rolled-up pant leg, revealing evidence of a past injury. It’s as if Murkowski has been admitted into a secret society.
“[Sen. Richard] Burr has huge scars from football injuries,” she said of the North Carolina Republican.
And how about some touching displays of bipartisanship?
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), upon hearing about Murkowski’s accident, immediately offered Murkowski use of her Washington-area condominium. Heck, she even offered to do Murkowski’s grocery shopping.
“One afternoon,” beamed Murkowski, “I was coming off the floor and [Sen.] Bob Byrd [D-W.Va.] was coming off the floor with his wheelchair, and we both wheeled down the hallway right back behind the restrooms. And I asked how he was doing, and he grabbed my hand, and we were holding hands in wheelchairs.”
Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) and Murkowski don’t sit on any committees together, nor do they usually have much interaction. But since her injury, Leahy’s been effusive in his well-wishing.
“He has been so very caring in his inquiries,” said Murkowski. “He said, ‘My wife’s been asking about you.’ I haven’t seen his wife in ages.”
Murkowski recalls sitting at home one day back in April, after her surgery — “miserable as all get-out” — when she came across a report that Sen. John Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) had just hurt his knee as well. The 71-year-old slipped on some steps outside West Virginia University and tore a tendon. Rockefeller had been ribbing Murkowski about how long she was on crutches, so she phoned her cross-aisle colleague to commiserate on their shared plight.
As it turned out, April was a fairly hellish month for senatorial knees. The casualties also included Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), who had arthroscopic surgery over the Easter break. Murkowski said she and Roberts have since spent time comparing notes on compression socks and physical therapy.
Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.), who broke his foot three years ago during a half-marathon, says many members have a soft spot for the injured, especially the injured athlete.
“Especially among people who are active,” said Carper, “you can’t help but admire them for being active, and when they get hurt, it humanizes them. So there is a natural reaching out to somebody.”