Rob Perez

Raising Cane

By Rob Perez

Mink camp owes it to us
to shine light on her health

A 74-year-old candidate for public office lies in a hospital bed with a grave illness, and voters are told very little about her condition as they go to the polls.

They don't know how serious it is, whether the candidate is comatose or on a respirator or whether she's alert and talking.

They don't know what her doctors are saying about her prospects for recovery and when she is expected to resume her work as a public servant.

All voters get are vague statements from her office that the illness is one from which a patient can recover, that her condition is serious but stable and that she is expected to bounce back over time.

Despite such a dearth of information, thousands of Hawaii residents cast their votes yesterday for U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink even as she lay in a hospital bed suffering from chicken pox-related viral pneumonia.

Mink easily beat her Democratic opponent, Steve Tataii, for the 2nd Congressional District seat and is scheduled to face Republican Bob McDermott in the November general election.

Everyone, of course, wishes Mink as quick a recovery as possible.

And her family certainly is entitled to a measure of privacy about Mink's health and what's happening as she undergoes treatment at Straub Clinic & Hospital, where she's been since Aug. 30.

Yet voters going to the polls yesterday were entitled to know more about Mink's condition as it relates to her ability to serve them for two more years in Congress.

Voters don't need to see her medical file. They don't need all the details. They simply need to be able to judge her fitness to serve in Washington, D.C., as they ponder whether to send her there for another term.

"That's something that people have a right to know," said Rob Richie, executive director of the Center for Voting and Democracy near Washington.

Others say voters in her rural Oahu and neighbor island district have been given enough information -- for now.

"Anything beyond the (official) statements is speculation," said Gary Copeland, director of the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center at the University of Oklahoma.

That's the problem. Given the dearth of information, there's a whole lot of speculating going on. Mink's constituents are left to wonder.

Is there a possibility she may have to withdraw from the race?

Will she be out of work for weeks or even months?

If re-elected, will she be able to start her new term from the start?

As insensitive as such questions may seem while Mink still is hospitalized, they are legitimate ones that so far have been unanswered. Some may not be so easily answered, given the difficulty in diagnosing outcomes in complicated medical cases.

But precisely because the seriousness of such ailments can be so wide-ranging and can have vastly different effects on one's ability to do a job, voters are entitled to know more about Mink's condition.

Someone suffering from chickenpox-related viral pneumonia, for instance, can suffer acute lung damage and be on a mechanical breathing machine for weeks and can take months to recover, medical experts say.

If complications arise with other organs, the severity of the illness becomes magnified, the recovery more problematic, especially for elderly patients.

The fact that the 74-year-old congresswoman has been in intensive care for three weeks is seen by some specialists as a discouraging sign and by others as a somewhat positive one -- in part because the ailment hasn't proved fatal thus far.

To Dr. Calvin Hirsch, program director of geriatrics at the University of California, Davis, medical school, the prolonged intensive care is worrisome.

"It's a poor prognostic sign by itself," Hirsch said. "It's scary ... She can still recover fully, but three weeks in intensive care isn't a good sign."

Dr. Edward J. Morgan, a Hono-lulu pulmonary specialist, takes a more benign view.

The reasons patients are referred to intensive care can vary greatly from hospital to hospital, Morgan said.

"Some physicians may place a person in intensive care simply to observe the person more closely," he said.

Dr. Shawn Skerrett, a pulmonary and critical care specialist and an associate professor of medicine at the University of Washington, said it wouldn't be unusual for someone with a serious case of chickenpox-related viral pneumonia to need mechanical help to breathe.

"It's a serious infection," Skerrett said.

But like the other experts, he said gauging the severity of Mink's condition is difficult given what few details are known.

"There's not much you can say without more information," Skerrett said.

More information.

That's precisely the point. I'm not a Mink critic. On the contrary, I've voted for her each time she has run for re-election since 1994, when I returned to Hawaii. I voted for her again yesterday.

But as she asks us to return her yet again to Congress, we need to know more about her capacity to serve.

Regaining her health, obviously, is the top concern. But as that process unfolds, Mink's staff shouldn't leave her constituents and voters in the dark.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:

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