Johnny Isakson: 'I've been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease'

U.S. Sen. Johnny Isakson on Wednesday announced he has been diagnosed as being in the early stages of Parkinson's disease, but said the illness would not affect his 2016 bid for re-election -- nor would it jeopardize his ability to serve a full six-year term.

“Parkinson’s you have two choices: You can let it control you, or you can control it. And I’ve chosen to take control of it," the 70-year-old Isakson said in a well-orchestrated Washington session with reporters. Local reporters were connected via a conference call.

“Once you find out, that’s the worst day. From then on out it’s all downhill. I’m very excited about what I’m doing. I’m very excited about what I’m capable of doing and what I’m able to do,” he said.

Isakson expounded:

“Anybody that follows me around for a week in Washington will recognize it’s not a debilitating situation. It’s a matter of me being in charge and I’m in charge. And to that end I’ve been all over the country in the last seven months since I’ve announced for re-election and I’m leaving this weekend to go to Williamsburg, Va., for an event and had a big one Monday in Atlanta at the Capital City Club and continue to pursue the election in 2016. I’m looking forward to re-election, looking forward to whatever challenge comes about and I’m tanned, rested and ready as Richard Nixon used to say.”

The senator said he personally called Gov. Nathan Deal, U.S. Sen. David Perdue and former U.S. senator Saxby Chambliss to give them the news.

Said Deal:

“In the 35 years that I’ve known Johnny Isakson, he has risen to meet — and overcome — every obstacle he’s encountered with determination and a smile on his face. There’s not a doubt in my mind that he and Diane will rise to meet this challenge. As he fights this battle, our distinguished senator will continue representing Georgians’ conservative principles in Washington."

Isakson opened his session with reporters by pointing two recent victories -- a trade agreement with South Africa involving Georgia exports and movement on legislation to compensate hostages in the 1979 Iran embassy takeover -- as proof that he hasn't lost a step. “I’ve had the best three-day week in the history of my legislative career,” he said.

Isakson's announcement goes directly to worries over his health that have quietly accompanied his bid for a third term. The senator said he was informed of the diagnosis two and a half years ago. He told his children about a month ago and his staff this morning.

Isakson said the initial tip leading to the diagnosis came from his son Kevin, who asked his mother: "Why doesn’t dad’s left arm swing when he walks?" Isakson had not noticed this before, but an Internet search led him, and later his doctors, to Parkinson's.

Isakson said he had no physical limitations, but said he occasionally has trouble multi-tasking -- talking and walking at the same time, for instance. From a press release just issued:

"[M]y main symptoms are the stiffness in my left arm and a slowed, shuffling gait. The recovery from the back surgery I had in October 2014 also has affected my gait. I have undergone rigorous physical therapy; I do exercises every morning and evening; and I take two Parkinson’s medicines."

He even revealed the meds: A dopamine patch and the generic version of sinemet, a common Parkinson's drug.

In that same press release, Isakson included a lengthy statement from his neurologist, Thomas M. Holmes of Marietta:

“I have been seeing Senator Isakson as a patient since November 2012. He first came to see me with a symptom of rigidity in his left arm. After several additional visits, I diagnosed him as having Parkinson’s disease in August of 2013.

“My most recent assessment of Senator Isakson was on May 27, 2015. Using physical examination and several accepted Parkinson's disease rating scales, I have concluded that Senator Isakson is in Stage 1.5 of 5 accepted stages of Parkinson's disease. This staging is indicative of his mild symptoms of Parkinson's disease. Senator Isakson has been treated with medication since August 2013 to assist his body's naturally occurring dopamine and to limit symptoms of Parkinson's disease. In addition, I have Senator Isakson doing daily exercises every morning and evening, and I had him undergo a rigorous physical therapy regimen tailored to treat symptoms of Parkinson's disease.

“Senator Isakson has been dedicated to performing the physical therapy and maintaining the daily exercise routine, and he has been compliant with his medication treatment. He has continued to maintain his rigorous Senate schedule without difficulty since 2012. I believe he is fully capable of continuing to perform his duties as a U.S. Senator, and I believe he is fully capable of running for re-election and serving for another term.

“As a practicing neurologist, I have treated many patients with various chronic neurological diseases, and I encourage all them to pursue their livelihoods with vigor and enthusiasm. With this in mind, I have encouraged Senator Isakson to do the same."

Isakson invited reporters to call his neurologist with any questions they have. Here's a pretty good FAQ on the topic.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who also got a heads-up, vouched for Isakson's ability to carry on. This via a spokesman:

“No one works harder than Johnny Isakson, who is the only Senator who is chairing two committees in the Senate. This diagnosis will not slow him down one bit.”

The praise was bipartisan. From Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who has fought his own health problems this year:

“Senator Isakson is tough. Johnny has represented the people of Georgia with distinction and honor in the Senate. Today’s announcement has shown his tremendous courage in his fight against Parkinson’s and his resolute determination to not let it take control of him. I know he will continue to stand for his principles in the Congress as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs and the Committee on Ethics.

“Landra and I wish Senator Isakson, his wife Dianne, their three children and nine grandchildren the best in his fight. We know they will confront the fight ‘head on’ and inspire us all with their love and perseverance.”

And here's Chambliss:

“I have talked with Senator Isakson about his current medical issue and as usual, Johnny is dealing with the matter in the right way and in a professional manner. His energy level remains very high and this issue is not going to impact his service to Georgians or Americans nor is it going to slow down his run for reelection. Once again, I am very proud of my best friend and look forward to working and campaigning with him in the coming months and years.”

As for his re-election bid, we wrote recently about how no Democrat was stepping up to challenge Isakson. On the Republican side, his only foe is MARTA engineer and minister Derrick Grayson, who garnered 1 percent of the vote in the 2014 Senate race.

From that April story:

Isakson, 70, is making early moves to raise money and organize support. He’s sitting on nearly $4 million to ward of potential rivals, and he raised $1.6 million in the first three months of the year. By comparison, at this point in his last re-election cycle, Isakson raised just $379,000 and had $2.47 million on hand.

He got an early jump on the 2016 cycle by announcing his candidacy for a third term in November to combat rumors that he would retire like his close pal Saxby Chambliss. And he quickly returned to the campaign trail after he recently suffered three cracked ribs, which started the rumor mill once again.

“There are rumors, all right, and your opponents are always trying to create fiction where there’s not,” said Heath Garrett, Isakson’s longtime chief political strategist. “But Johnny is traveling the state and working hard. We always like to say Johnny is the turtle, not the hare in the parable.”

 

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