What Joe Biden learned from his life-threatening brain aneurysms
In early 1988, Joe Biden was devastated.
The then-Delaware senator had bowed out of the 1988 presidential race after questions were raised about the lack of attribution of quotes he used in a speech. Biden feared the scandal would tarnish his reputation, that people would consider him a cheat.
He was having regular headaches, requiring him to carry around a big bottle of Tylenol. He was also feeling pain in his neck.
And as chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Biden had recently overseen the contentious confirmation hearing for Robert Bork, followed by hearings for Anthony Kennedy.
In February of 1988, he suffered two life-threatening brain aneurysms. Biden has said the experience shaped him into the "kind of man I want to be."
In his 2007 book "Promises to Keep," he describes passing out in a hotel room in Rochester in February 1988, where earlier that night he had given a speech at the University of Rochester. He recalls a "lightning flashing inside my head, a powerful electrical surge — and then a rip of pain like I'd never felt before." He was unconscious for five hours.
Biden flew back to Wilmington the next morning, despite feeling weak and sick. Shortly after returning to his home, he was rushed to Saint Francis Hospital in Wilmington. The results of a spinal tap showed blood in his spinal fluid, meaning an artery in his brain was likely leaking, Biden wrote.
A CT scan revealed an aneurysm lying below the base of his brain. Surgery was his best chance of survival.
He underwent a microsurgical craniotomy at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington, D.C. The chances of surviving the surgery were 50 percent, but the likelihood of waking up with serious deficits was even more concerning, Biden wrote.
"Maybe I should have been frightened at this point, but I felt calm," he wrote. "In fact, I felt becalmed, like I was floating gently in the wide-open sea. It surprised me, but I had no real fear of dying. I'd long since accepted the fact that life's guarantees don't include a fair shake."
Biden recalled being "completely isolated" during his recovery, a decision made by wife Jill and his staff. This meant no work or phone calls. Even when President Ronald Reagan called Biden twice, Jill was adamant about her rule and would not let Biden take the call.
That May, Biden underwent a second surgery, which was a success. While recovering, Biden admits he was self-conscious about his looks. He was thin, his right eyelid drooped and the right side of his forehead was immobile.
Initially, doctors weren't sure if his "dead face" would be permanent, Biden wrote. But six weeks later, the muscles in his forehead and cheek began to work again. Although Jill and his staff still kept him off the phones, Sen. Ted Kennedy was the one person who broke the rule and surprised him with an in-person visit.
Biden said this was the first time in his life when he "really rested." By August, he felt like himself again and was given the OK by doctors to return to Congress. He made his first public appearance at the Delaware Democratic Party's Sussex County Jamboree.
He told a crowd of hundreds that he had received his "second chance in life."
"That last year had taught me one big lesson: The only things that are truly urgent are matters of life and death," Biden wrote in the book. "I was no less committed or passionate, but I no longer felt I had to win every moment to succeed."
"More important I understood that a single moment of failure — even one so public and wounding as the end of my presidential campaign — could not determine my epitaph."
Contact Meredith Newman at (302) 324-2386 or email@example.com and on Twitter @MereNewman.