For a big chunk of his life, Ben Ray Luján’s father was the person who put him in his place. The man pushed him to work, to strive, to avoid self-pity.
But with a hole the size of a silver dollar in his skull and Ben Luján Sr. long gone, the tough love for the younger Luján came from an unexpected source.
In the days after undergoing surgery for a stroke at University of New Mexico Hospital, the U.S. senator from New Mexico — a man with a big job title and even bigger responsibilities — found himself being set straight by a nurse named Tyler Mantel, who, to hear Luján tell it, had heard enough bellyaching.
“I’m sure I was being difficult or something, and Tyler just sat me down,” recalled Luján. “I think he’d kind of had it. And he said, ‘You know, you have to be positive. You can’t be negative — and you can be your own worst enemy.’ ”
From a nurse’s mouth to a senator’s ears.
Jolted by Mantel’s frustration — or perhaps, accuracy — Luján says his path to recovery began in earnest that day. And though it’s been a sometimes difficult, emotional and harrowing road, he remains grateful for those who helped him, particularly since it could easily have gone in a different direction.
“It kind of changed my perspective from the moment he told me that,” Luján said in a late April interview with The New Mexican, his first in-depth conversation with a New Mexico media outlet since the stroke. “I think it holds true in many aspects of our life, right? When times get tough, and you’re fortunate to have love and support around you, then it’s up to you.”
Luján, 49, acknowledged he continues to recover from the stroke, located in his cerebellum, though he was back at work 35 days after first suffering symptoms early on the morning of Jan. 27. He recently told reporters at an event in Las Vegas, N.M., in April he was at “90 percent,” though he now believes he’s further along than that.
“I told them I was above 90,” he said lightly, “but they all wrote 90.”
Luján, two years into his first Senate term after a long run in the U.S. House, said the next few percentage points of recovery are doable. But they will require physical therapy and some change in lifestyle. Long a poor sleeper, he’s working to get more rest. He’s lost 25 pounds and marvels at how his appetite isn’t what it was before the stroke. He’s watching his cholesterol.
And if that were the sum total of the stroke — a scare and a few tweaks to the routine — perhaps Luján could chalk it up to a bad day in January. Instead, he said he’s determined not only to learn from the episode, but to teach about it as well.
Luján said he plans to become an advocate for stroke awareness. According to the National Institutes of Health, nearly 800,000 Americans suffer a stroke and 137,000 die from them. His campaign began earlier this week with ABC’s Good Morning America and will continue in the Senate with health legislation.
“With everything I’ve learned, I’m stronger now than I ever was before,” he said. “And talking about it helps give me that strength, too. That’s why I’m willing to do this. I think it’s important.”
Luján said he’d gotten no signals on what was to come until about 5:45 a.m. Jan. 27. While staying at his mother’s home in Nambé, he’d gotten up to make coffee. Before long, the room’s four walls began losing their form.
“I thought it was vertigo, but it was just spinning,” he recalled, his voice coated with a touch of amazement. “And I didn’t feel anything before. Not the day before. Not the week before. Not even 10 minutes before.”
Feeling as if he’d “jumped off a merry-go-round,” Luján said he went back to bed. But the spinning only got worse, making him feel as if the room were sideways. He called his chief of staff, Carlos Sanchez, who told him to immediately call his doctor. Doctor’s orders? Get to the emergency room.
The next call went next door, to Luján’s sister, Jackie Valdez, who was staying with their mother, Carmen. By the time Valdez arrived, Luján was crawling.
“When I first walked in, he said vertigo, right? I expected vertigo,” Valdez said last week. “He clearly needed medical attention. He was having problems walking. It did make me … I guess scared is a good way to describe it. I was scared in that I needed to get him some help, some medical attention as soon as I could.”
“My sister helped carry me to her car, just, like on her shoulders,” Luján said. “My arm on her shoulder. She put a broom or something in my hand. We got outside on the porch and I used that, plus my sister’s shoulder, to be able to get in the vehicle.”
As they drove toward Santa Fe, Valdez spotted a local fire station in Pojoaque and pulled in.
Luján didn’t require a long examination. One of the firefighters or EMTs said, “I don’t like the way he looks.” The next thing he knew, Luján was on his way to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center in an emergency vehicle. After a quick scan at Christus St. Vincent, he was headed to Albuquerque and UNM Hospital.
Once in Albuquerque, doctors chose to see if the swelling in Luján’s brain would subside on its own. They gave it four days. Astoundingly, word of the stroke leaked neither in New Mexico or in Washington, D.C.
In a video released Feb. 13, members of Luján’s medical team said he’d suffered a tear in his vertebral artery. According to a variety of sources, such a rupture can be caused by any of a variety of factors, from coughing to neck turning to weightlifting.
On Day 4, Jan. 31, Luján underwent decompressive surgery, prompting the need to remove a piece of his skull and leaving him with 26 staples in the back of his head.
The news was a shock in Washington, where the Senate was gearing up for Supreme Court confirmation hearings on Ketanji Brown-Jackson. Luján’s vote in a split chamber would be critical.
Months later, Luján doesn’t talk so much about the politics of the time — he returned to Washington and voted to confirm the judge — but the small kindnesses of colleagues, friends and family. Every day, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, a fellow Democrat, sent him an inspirational video. Cards and well-wishes flew in. The monsoon of kindness, he said, was overwhelming.
“Just to treat people with respect and kindness, man, you know, there’s a lot that you can do just by smiling at someone — acknowledging them to make a difference,” he said.
Asked if he feared death, whether in the initial moments, or during the long wait before surgery, Lujan answered quickly: no. There was too much going on.
But that doesn’t mean he’s turned off his emotions about the subject.
As has been his habit throughout his political career, he instead expands the frame of his feelings to include his family, notably Ben Luján, the longtime speaker of New Mexico’s House of Representatives.
The youngest of his parents’ four children, he says he’s cried often when thinking of his father’s final days in the battle against cancer. Those feelings and these new ones seem to blend.
“You know, I’ll tear up and I cry, yeah,” he said. “There’s moments when I’m telling this story and it hits me at different times, depending what I’m talking about, or if it stirs up a memory. I’ll get emotional. …
“I’ve definitely had a lot of emotional moments with folks that have come to talk to me that have had a stroke but didn’t tell anyone else because it was kind of a secret,” he added. “Or [it happens] when I’m talking to stroke survivors who came to me on their own to give me advice and just to check on me. And I think it’s helpful for folks who are stroke survivors, too, for them to talk about it. You understand each other in a very personal and intimate way, because you’ve gone through this together. And that can be very emotional.”
For now, Luján said he continues to follow his doctor’s advice. He’s careful to avoid “doing anything where I’m gonna smack my head.” A noted mountain bike enthusiast, his choice of helmet will be more, well, protective. There’s a work element as well: Luján is hunting for legislation to help people with strokes in addition to being a willing voice for stroke awareness.
“What I have seen from Ben, what has made his recovery so incredible, is he worked hard,” said Valdez, one of his two older sisters. “He put in the work. He did what the doctors asked him to do. He did the physical therapy. He is very focused on getting back to work and helping the people. That’s what he’s passionate about. This has just escalated that in him. He’s very driven but also a very humble: ‘Look this can happen to anyone.’ ”
Luján admits there have been days when he’s asked the most human question of all — why me? It was one he came to know well as his father became ill. But with those thoughts also came some of his father’s final words, reminding him: “God’s not gonna give you anything you can’t handle.”
And so, 101 days after a moment that changed his life, here’s Ben Ray Luján: thinner and wiser. Maybe better.