By Jordy Yager - 04/29/08 05:12 PM EDT
Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) has accomplished a great deal throughout his political career, including one feat that no other lawmaker may be able to claim.
He has memorized almost all of Capitol Hill’s stairs.
This isn’t just because the longtime senator has patrolled the halls for decades. It’s also a matter of safety — or even life and death.
Falling is the leading cause of hospitalization and death by injury for people over the age of 65, which covers a sizeable portion of the U.S. Senate. More than 40 percent of current senators are over 65, and several have experienced nasty falls.
It’s a particular problem for Leahy, 68, who was born legally blind in one eye and sees all stairways as flat. To avoid falling, the athletic senator, a scuba diver and cross-country skier in his spare time, has memorized the way each staircase feels, as well as the spacing differences from one to the next.
“I’m probably more careful than most people because of my eyesight,” Leahy said. “The [stairs] I had the hardest time mastering were the ones in the front of the Capitol. Once I got those, everything else was a piece of cake.”
The passing of Rep. Paul Gillmor (R-Ohio), who was found dead last year at his townhouse in Virginia after suffering injuries from a fall down the stairs, served as a startling reminder for senior lawmakers as to just how perilous a fall can be.
A more recent reminder came in February when Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), 91, fell in his home.
Some falls aren’t life-threatening but still cause serious damage. Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), 61, fell two weeks ago and broke his wrist while running down the street in D.C. He was still wearing a sling last week.
Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) has put forward the Safety of Seniors Act, which would increase education for seniors on how to prevent falls and promote research into falling as a major hazard to the health of the elderly. President Bush signed the bill into law last week.
“I think everybody’s taken a stumble at one time or other,” said Enzi, who would not cite any specific falls he has endured himself. “It’s a very embarrassing moment.”
A House historian, who did not want to be named, said he wondered why, with so many hazards throughout the Capitol, more hadn’t been done to provide for the safety of its senior members. While elevators are readily available throughout the Capitol campus, the stairs have been worn down over the years to slick marble slabs.
Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. (D-N.J.) was visiting his elderly mother recently at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He noticed several posters throughout the elder-care unit advising seniors on how to position their furniture at home or make their showers fall-proof.
“The bottom line for seniors is that the majority of serious traumatic injuries result from falls,” said Pallone, who sponsored the House version of Enzi’s bill. “It’s a huge problem and the most preventable of injuries for seniors.”
“Clearly it’s a problem,” said Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.), one of several lawmakers who are physicians. “I have a 90-year-old mother who uses a cane, and probably should use a walker but won’t because of pride. And I’m constantly worried that is mom fell and sustained a fracture, she wouldn’t get up.”
When an elderly person is hospitalized after a fall, he or she runs a high risk of developing other illnesses, such as pneumonia or urinary tract disorders, Gingrey said. This was the case with Sen. Byrd, who has been using a wheelchair in the Capitol since his return.
These prolonged and sometime permanent hospital stays are not cheap on the taxpayer, either.
“One of the biggest reasons to devote money for prevention [of falls] is that it brings down costs,” said Melissa Schwartz, spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), a longtime advocate of elderly fall prevention.
Falls among elderly persons account for about 13,000 deaths and 1.8 million emergency room visits annually, costing taxpayers $27 billion ever year.
“As a physician, I’m very familiar with the danger of falls and the importance of addressing them,” Gingrey said. “There’s no doubt it’s a huge financial cost to taxpayers, especially under the Medicare program.”
Falls are not limited to lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
While President Bush’s approval rating has fallen over the years, he himself has taken a few spills of another nature.
In 2003, Bush was caught on camera falling off a Segway scooter, though he was not seriously injured.
In 2004, Bush suffered minor injuries after he fell off his bike about 16 miles into a 17-mile bike ride.
Bush is not the first president to fall in the public eye. Perhaps the most infamous spill belongs to President Gerald Ford as he was deplaning from Air Force One in Vienna, Austria in 1975. Having almost reached the bottom of the rain-slicked metal stairs leading down to the tarmac, the 38th president slipped and tumbled down at least the last half-dozen stairs.
Chevy Chase frequently depicted Ford bumbling into objects on “Saturday Night Live.” Despite being one of the most athletic presidents, the football, basketball and track star is remembered as a klutz.
Another infamous fall occurred in 1996, when then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) fell face-first off a stage in California during his presidential campaign. The flub would come to cast serious doubt on Dole’s ability to lead the nation.
In November 2004, Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) injured his head after falling during a 50-mile race.
The injury required the Senate Finance Committee chairman to later have two small holes drilled into his skull to relieve pressure from fluid building up on the outside of his brain.
Of course, politicians may be better-known for falling asleep, not falling down. The presumptive GOP presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) was caught falling asleep during Bush’s 2007 State of the Union address.
That kind of a fall can be risky for a political career, but cat-naps are far less dangerous physically than the stumbles the elderly face daily. Neither the House nor Senate historical offices keep records of lawmaker injuries or falls, though a staff member in the Senate historical office said if they did, it would be extremely lengthy.
Leahy has a special mechanism to keep himself upright; his wife, Marcelle.
When the couple travel, she lets him place a finger on her arm as a point of reference when they venture down sets of stairs that have not been engrained within his memory yet.