Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Cindy McCain and migraines : The New Yorker

     Cindy McCain has endured a number of public tribulations, including miscarriage, stroke, knee replacement, ruptured disks, and an addiction to painkillers. Last year, as her husband, John, campaigned for President, her weight dipped below a hundred pounds. During a rally in West Bloomfield, Michigan, she suffered a handshake injury—a minor sprain, aggravating an old carpal-tunnel problem—sustained, her husband said, when a supporter "very vigorously" pumped her right hand. It was thus surprising to learn recently that Cindy McCain had, all along, been engaged in "a silent struggle," one "that has burdened her through many political campaigns, her charitable work, and her day-to-day life." The bearer of the news was the American Headache Society, and the adversary was migraine. "You know the picture in People magazine with me in the little dress?" McCain recalled. "That was the worst. We were with President Bush—where was it, Arizona? Anyway, I got up, because I had to, and once I got on the airplane I collapsed."

McCain was speaking as the guest of honor at a luncheon given by the A.H.S. in a private room at Le Bernardin. (The next day, in Philadelphia, she would be the keynote speaker at the Fourteenth Congress of the International Headache Society.) She was dressed in spectator pumps and a chartreuse piqué suit. Everything about her seemed lemony—tart yellow bob, pursed lips. Her commentary, aided by a stack of blue index cards—one listed migraine sufferers in history: "THOMAS JEFFERSON, JOAN OF ARC, VIRGINIA WOOLF"—was astringent. She recalled, "The first doctor I went to basically said, 'Well, you're just neurotic, you're just stressed, your husband's a senator. Go home, put your feet up, and have a drink.' " She continued, "What affected me the most was being talked to like I was dumb. That infuriated me." McCain has decided to become an advocate for the disorder, which, in her view, is a disability. "I've missed part of my life. I've missed my children in many ways," she said. "I've made every important event, but there're times I've been throwing up out the car window."

Migraine advocates talk a lot about triggers—stimuli that, for unknown reasons, tend to set off attacks. (They also invariably refer to "migraine" in the singular.) McCain, who experiences changes in her field of vision at the onset of her headaches—"I get the aura, the floaters, the ziggies"—believes that sudden drops in barometric pressure are one of her triggers. She was coming off a ten-day headache: "In Arizona we get these huge, monsoonlike thunderstorms, and, boy, that was all it took." Smells are another concern. Not long ago, on business in Dubai, she opened her luggage to find that a bottle of perfume had shattered during the flight. She said, "All I had to do was unzip the bag, and I had to go straight home."

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