What Our Obsession With Hillary Clinton’s Pneumonia Says About How We’re Treating Her Candidacy

Life & Culture Editor
09.16.16 37 Comments

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By now, we all know the story: On September 11, while leaving a commemorative service in New York City, Hillary Clinton suffered a moment of physical distress. What you believe truly happened the moment she left the memorial will depend largely upon the websites which you visit. Was it a stumble? A full-on fall? Did she faint? And was Clinton, when she emerged from her daughter Chelsea’s apartment several hours later, actually replaced by a body double meant to get her through the rest of election cycle (and possibly a presidency)?

It’s likely that we’ll never know the answers to any of the above questions — especially the one about the body double, unless we can score an invite to the Bilderberg Group’s next party — but here’s what’s important: Whether Hillary Clinton collapsed due to dehydration or overheating or her recently diagnosed pneumonia doesn’t matter much. It’s especially irrelevant when used to ladder up to questions about whether the former Secretary of State will be able to lead the country. Pneumonia is an illness people have, treat, and get over. Wild speculation about Clinton’s condition, however, could have some very real effects.

Before we unpack this episode in context of the campaign, let’s talk about pneumonia in general. It’s an illness the public doesn’t actually know much about — even though social media seems awash in opinions about Clinton’s ailment, furious declarations that it might all be a huge lie, loose implications that a temporary illness somehow makes her unfit to lead, and tweets of solidarity.

So what is pneumonia? According to CNN — which ran an explainer on the disorder soon after Clinton’s physical episode on Sunday — it’s a respiratory infection that makes it difficult to breathe due to liquid entering the lungs. The illness is caused by virus, bacteria, or fungi. It’s especially dangerous, CNN points out, for children. And yes, pneumonia can be fatal. The Centers for Disease Control reports that of the 1,000,000 cases of the illness each year, approximately 50,000 end in the death of the patient. The CDC also points out that pneumonia can be treated with rest (a luxury Clinton doesn’t have right now), fluids, and, in some cases, antibiotics (which Clinton is taking). Is the disease serious for someone over 65? Yes. Is it something that makes one unfit to perform their job, whatever that job might me? Only if they die.

In order to get more insight into Clinton’s diagnosis, we spoke to Patrick McCarty, a Virginia-based nurse practitioner who works primarily with the geriatric population (that’s anyone over 60, so the title fits every candidate in the race). The best cure for pneumonia, including the “walking” variety is “rest at home or a day off,” McCarty says. “But as we know with Clinton, she doesn’t really have that option.”

“Community-acquired pneumonia,” he notes, “is like having the flu. There are so many strains of pneumonia and she’s talking to so many people, it’s bound to happen. She just drew the short straw. Trump could have easily caught pneumonia. He still might.”

That’s a sentiment echoed by Priyanka Wali, a San Francisco-based physician we contacted for a second opinion — because you always need a second opinion in medicine.

“It’s not a debilitating chronic condition,” Wali says, “but an ailment that can be resolved with rest and antibiotics. Fainting isn’t necessarily a sign of severity; any stress to the body can cause someone to pass out.”

But would it keep someone from doing her job, even if that job is ruling the free world?

“If someone came into my office, and asked me if their career was over due to a bout of pneumonia, I’d think that was silly,” Wali continues. “I’d tell them they were sick, and that, fortunately, we have antibiotics. Having pneumonia doesn’t mean everything stops. You can absolutely work from home, although you may feel more tired. Considering their grueling schedules and the number of people they meet, I’m surprised more candidates don’t get sick.”

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