Word Tuesday (April 22) that U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., had been hospitalized overnight with chest pain and subsequently had heart surgery caught many in the state off guard. But according to a political science professor in the state, a medical situation such as the one facing Boozman is not unheard of in Arkansas politics.
Dr. Hal Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, said the last time a prominent Arkansas politician faced a situation such as Boozman's was in April 1991, when then-U.S. Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., suffered a heart attack during his last term in office. He said while Pryor's situation and others across the nation have occurred in the past, there was no precedent for how potentially extended medical leaves are handled, especially in Congress.
"There's no real standard operating procedure," he said, adding that when Pryor suffered his heart attack, he was released from the hospital in about a week, but required several weeks of rest away from the Senate as he recuperated.
Bass also cited the more recent example of U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., who suffered a stroke shortly into his term in the U.S. Senate and spent much of 2012 on a medical leave from the Senate.
And while it is true that members of Congress are unable to vote while away on leave, the OBU professor noted that there is much more to serving in Congress than just casting a vote or two each week.
"Senators do much more than vote in terms of representing us," he said. "Their staffs will stay on duty, all the constituency service issues would be addressed by staff."
He also said since 2014 is an election year, any recovery time necessary for the 63-year-old Boozman — whose prognosis is unknown, though a statement from his office said he is expected to make a full recovery — would not necessarily take him away from many Senate duties.
"What won't be happening is votes. We're entering a campaign season and Congress won't be in session that much. Given that it is a campaign year, there is no real (legislation that will be passed). But we don't know what the future holds here. If this is a standard recovery time, I don't see the state's voters being enormously inconvenienced or damaged by this. I think the office will stay open. Constituent needs will be served and he'll be able to stay in touch electronically with committees and things like that."
The office of U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., issued the following update Wednesday morning.
“Boozman, 63, was taken to the hospital early yesterday morning, by his wife Cathy, after suffering pain in his chest and shoulder. He was, at the time of transport, alert, responsive and in good spirits despite the discomfort and pain. After running several tests, doctors diagnosed Boozman with an acute aortic dissection and he was admitted for immediate surgery. The surgeons who performed the operation, which lasted several hours, said that Boozman responded well to the procedure.
“Boozman remains hospitalized while doctors continue to monitor his recovery. He is awake and responsive, and doctors are pleased with the progress he has made. His family has been with him and has expressed gratitude for outpouring of support.
“The Boozman family released the following statement: ‘We appreciate the prayers, kind words and well-wishes that have come from Arkansans and people all across the country. Our number one priority is making sure John makes a full recovery. We are grateful for the excellent care the doctors, nurses and medical staff are providing. They are amazed at how well he has responded and we are anxious for him to begin the next phase of recovery. We know that if John had it his way he would be right back on the road in Arkansas, so the difficult part will be making sure he gets the rest he needs to get better.’”
Bass said while Boozman's sidelining due to a medical condition was the first time a situation like this had occurred in Arkansas since Pryor's heart attack in 1991, observers should not be shocked to see it happen again, especially in the U.S. Senate.
"It's not unprecedented," he said. "You're dealing with a population, relatively speaking, of older individuals. The ravages of time, in some fashion, will get us all. But it's not by any means unprecedented for a member of Congress to have time off to deal with medical challenges."
As news reached from Rogers to Washington and all points in between of Boozman's surgery, well wishes have poured in, as well.
U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, R-Dardanelle, sent his regards, saying he was "grateful to call Senator Boozman a colleague and a friend. My thoughts and prayers are with him and his family. I know that I join all Arkansans in wishing him a full and speedy recovery.”
City Administrator Ray Gosack and Mayor Sandy Sanders of Fort Smith, the state's second largest city and Boozman's home during his high school years, also sent their regards in a statement.
"(My wife) Sandi and I are thankful to hear John expects a full recovery," Mayor Sanders said. "He’s a dear friend personally and he’s a loyal friend to Fort Smith. We count on John’s quiet and effective leadership in Washington, and his wise counsel on matters of importance to our region. We’re certain Cathy and John’s daughters will keep him from rushing back to work too soon. Sandi and I pray for John, the medical staff attending to him, for his family, and his staff during his convalescence."