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Politics

Rep. Grace Napolitano is back at work in Washington after stroke

Rep. Grace Napolitano

Rep. Grace Napolitano (D-Norwalk) in 2014. At a campaign stop in February, Napolitano suffered a minor stroke. 

(Bill Clark / CQ Roll Call)

Two months after suffering a minor stroke at a campaign stop, Rep. Grace Napolitano is back in Washington.

The 79-year-old returned for a handful of votes in mid-March with little fanfare before the spring recess began. There was no announcement in the House, no social media post. Napolitano said she just wanted to get back to work.

Still, colleagues pepper the Norwalk Democrat with questions about what happened and how she’s recovering when she’d rather talk about transportation or water policy.

“I wanted to talk to some members about ongoing issues, [but] everybody was coming [up], “How are you feeling? How are you doing?” So I never got to talk to anybody about the things that I wanted to, but I got around to it,” she said in an interview in her Capitol Hill office.

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Her pace has slowed and she still struggles to write.

“It hasn’t slowed my brain, it’s slowed my body somewhat,” she said. “In speaking, sometimes I tend to be a little slower, but still have the same ideas and the same everything.”

The stroke occurred while Napolitano was answering questions from members of the Los Angeles County Young Democrats club during an endorsement meeting Feb 13.

While answering a question she struggled to finish sentences. Her campaign staff drove her to a hospital afterward, where she stayed two nights for tests and observation.

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Napolitano took a month off to recover, limiting herself to talking with senior members of her staff so she could focus on healing quickly.

“I was wanting to come back after two weeks, and the doctor said, ‘Nah, four to six weeks,’” she said. “He recommended a lot more rest than I took, but I can’t abide by that because I’m antsy.”

Congressional colleagues and Napolitano’s constituents offered help and sent well wishes. She lost count of the flower deliveries.

“I had a flower shop in my kitchen,” she said. 

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona) said she and others in California’s congressional delegation tried to give Napolitano space to heal.

“I didn’t want to answer people’s questions and put her out there in any way, so I didn’t call,” Torres said. “It was such a short time frame, her absence was not long-term.”

Rep. Juan Vargas’ office is down the hall from Napolitano’s, and he said it was fantastic to have her back at the Capitol.

He checked in with her staff while she was away and sent along well wishes and offers to help.

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Vargas said he wasn’t surprised that Napolitano had returned without a lot of fanfare.

“That’s exactly the way she is. She’s a hard worker,” he said.

Napolitano had a “bleeding” or hemorrhagic stroke, which occurs when a weakened vessel ruptures and bleeds into the surrounding brain, according to the American Stroke Assn. The blood accumulates and compresses the surrounding brain tissue.

According to Napolitano’s office, the hemorrhage was in the basal ganglia, the part of the brain that controls coordination and movement. This is a common hemorrhage within the brain that is usually caused by poorly controlled, longstanding hypertension.

“I consider myself pretty strong, and then to have this happen, was kind of like, it can’t happen,” Napolitano said.

Her doctor warned her more than five years ago that there were problems with her blood pressure. She lost weight and changed her diet to avoid taking medication.

“I lost a few pounds, but not enough,” Napolitano said. “This job is stress from beginning to end [and] I go home every weekend, so essentially I think it’s a conglomeration of things that just caught up with me.”

Napolitano estimated that her body is functioning at 80% of its normal performance.

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“In [my] brain I’m ready to go, I’m ready to do things. I’m just going to have to take it easy is all,” she said.

She said she hasn’t seen a doctor since being released from the hospital two months ago, and except for one visit, hasn’t done physical therapy. Napolitano said she expects her doctor will want to do some more testing to determine how much her motor skills have been affected.

Generally, she only notices anything is wrong when she walks.

“It’s like learning how to walk again, telling your mind to communicate with your leg to walk the way you used to,” she said. “It’s a matter of retraining yourself to do things.”

In the days after the stroke, she couldn’t write her name. She dictates notes and directions to staff.

“I just take a little time in making sure that I write what I want,” Napolitano said of when she has to write. “I’m putting a little effort into it, and it’s working out.”

Napolitano faces a challenge from fellow Democrat Roger Hernandez, an assemblyman from West Covina, and Republican Gordon Fisher.

Last week, a judge granted Hernandez’s ex-wife a restraining order following domestic violence allegations.

Soon after news of the stroke came out Napolitano vowed to continue seeking a 10th term. This week she said nothing has changed.

“I’m sure there are some who hoped it was serious enough that I wouldn’t run again,” Napolitano said. “The campaign is on the move, and I’m still working.”

sarah.wire@latimes.com

Follow @sarahdwire on Twitter

Read more about the 55 members of California’s delegation at latimes.com/politics

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