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Officials go to great lengths to hide illnesses

Published: Monday, July 9, 2012 10:31 a.m. CST

CHICAGO (MCT) — Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill., used a common complaint — exhaustion — to explain a medical leave he began in June. More than three weeks after Jackson went on leave, his spokesman revealed that the lawmaker had long-standing “physical and emotional ailments,” and that the congressman’s still-unnamed medical condition was “more serious than we thought.”

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., used a fake name — Hillel Underwood — when he entered a suburban Chicago hospital in January after suffering a stroke, an ailment that has kept him from the Capitol ever since.

How the two Illinois politicians handled their setbacks illustrates the lengths some elected officials go to maintain medical privacy, even as their cases call into question whether the public gets the whole truth about the health of its political leaders.

Few answers are now available about Jackson. His spokesman, Frank Watkins, said Thursday that the congressman needs “extended in-patient treatment” and care afterward. But basic facts are undisclosed: Where is Jackson? What’s ailing him?

Jackson’s medical leave began June 10, but Watkins waited more than two weeks to make it public, and he turned aside follow-up questions Friday.

Kirk declined requests for an interview about his alias, which the Tribune learned about independently from a search of a commercial database that linked the name to Kirk’s home.

Eric Elk, a top Kirk aide, wrote in an email that the senator used the alias Hillel Underwood to “enhance his privacy” and to “reduce the chances of unwanted visitors during his medical crisis” when he checked into Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital Jan. 21.

Elk said Kirk “follows procedures recommended to members of Congress by the sergeant at arms, including using a pseudonym when checking into the hospital.”

Chicago native Terry Gainer, who formerly led the Illinois State Police, is Senate sergeant at arms. Gainer said Friday that he was aware “early on” that Kirk was going to be hospitalized, but he could not recall when he discussed with the senator using an alias, which Gainer said was a “protective measure.”

“I don’t know that there was a threat, but I know he or his staff was concerned to want that privacy,” Gainer said. In the past, he said, he has “very infrequently” counseled senators to use pseudonyms when checking into a hospital.

The same day Kirk entered the hospital in Lake Forest, he was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where he eventually underwent three brain surgeries. Nearly two days after Kirk was hospitalized, his stroke was disclosed to the public, following his first surgery.

Two news conferences were held in the second hospital, and doctors said Kirk would regain his mental faculties but could suffer lingering paralysis on his left side.

He is now undergoing outpatient rehabilitation in the city. In May, aides released a video of him relearning to walk. He has not made any public appearances in the five months since his stroke, nor has he said when he may return to the Senate floor.

“The senator is eager to return to the United States Senate as soon as possible, and meanwhile remains actively engaged in advancing the interests of Illinois residents while working to regain his mobility,” Elk said.

Kirk’s physical recovery while serving in high public office is undoubtedly difficult. But advocates for disclosure argue that political power carries public responsibilities.

University of Chicago political scientist William Howell said it’s hard to pass judgment on Jackson and Kirk because, absent all the facts, it’s impossible to discern “what’s being disclosed and what’s not being disclosed.”

But Howell said that whether the two public servants are being transparent about their health woes and prognoses is a “perfectly legitimate subject for public debate, public concern and media attention.”

Howell said the reason elected officials might hold back comes down to one word: re-election.

“There’s not much upside, and there’s some downside, to reveal an enduring issue to the public,” he said, “because it raises legitimate questions about their capacity to represent their constituents, and when these questions are raised, it invites not just a challenger, but a stronger challenger, in a coming election.”

Jackson, 47, a Democrat, is on the ballot on Nov. 6. Kirk, 52, a Republican, is up for re-election in 2016.

Jackson and Kirk’s situations recall the issues that Cook County, Ill., voters faced in March 2006, , when County Board President John Stroger had a major stroke the week before the March primary and the severity of his condition was shrouded in secrecy until long after the Democratic primary.

The stroke was announced, but doctors and politicians never let on about its severity until months after the primary, which the 76-year-old Stroger won.

Party leaders launched an energetic push to ensure that Stroger triumphed, with Mayor Richard M. Daley and others criticizing anyone who questioned Stroger’s ability to serve, even as some power brokers privately acknowledged that they wanted to position themselves to help choose an eventual successor.

The job went to Stroger’s son, Todd, who held office until 2010. The father, who never turned up in public after he fell ill, died in 2008.

Kirk’s aide Elk confirmed that the senator had used the alias Hillel Underwood at Northwestern Lake Forest after his stroke, but Elk turned aside other questions.

At Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, spokeswoman Jane Griffin said requests for an alias are rare and done more often because of security rather than celebrity. For example, she said, a domestic-violence victim might want anonymity.

Some doctors are sympathetic. Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore attracts government officials from nearby Washington. Daniel Hanley, a professor of neurology there, won’t name names but said: “I take care of mostly ordinary people, but I take care of some unordinary people ... and they always use aliases. It’s a common practice.”

Rebecca Gottesman, an associate professor of neurology at Hopkins, said she’s treated patients registered under aliases up to a dozen times since 2000. It’s a precaution so their name isn’t outside their door and medical records aren’t compromised, she said.

Craig Holman, an ethics expert at Public Citizen, a watchdog group in Washington, said there was no need for Kirk to use a fake name. He said that once a person becomes a public official, much about their lives becomes of public interest, including their health.

“Using an alias runs counter to the spirit that this should be public information,” Holman said. “This is peculiar.”

He said Jackson should have fully disclosed his health issues weeks ago.

William Bianco, an Indiana University political scientist, said officials are due a measure of privacy and noted that in the short term, staffers can help them get things done despite “significant infirmity.”

“Longer term, when a physical or mental issue calls into question an official’s ability, it’s appropriate to expect regular, candid reports, both from the official and their medical team,” he said. “We trust elected officials to an extraordinary degree.”

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