Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Back on the Beat, Back on His Feet: A Conversation with Roger Simon

The columnist and former Chicagoan, who suffered a catastrophic illness that resulted in the amputation of both legs, talks about his medical nightmare and how he bagged an Oval Office interview with the president.

I missed columnist and former Chicagoan Roger Simon while he was gone. I looked for his column, which I always found wittier and wiser than the work produced by most big-name political pundits. I had followed the South Sider’s work from his time at the Sun-Times, where he was an investigative reporter and then star columnist; to his years at the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune, and U.S. News & World Report; then to Bloomberg News as chief political correspondent; and, since December 2006, to Politico.

Eventually I learned that his disappearance starting two years ago—and ending eight months later with the coup of landing an Oval Office interview with President Obama—was due to illness, a serious and catastrophic one that included four weeks in a coma and the amputation of both legs from the knee down.

That interview with the president in Politico, for which the 63-year-old Simon is the chief political columnist, was arranged by his old friend David Axelrod—who was writing for the Trib when Simon was at the Sun-Times. The interview was intended to let his colleagues and readers know that he was back, minus parts of his legs and a few of his fingertips, but with his sense of the intricacies and absurdities of national politics—and his ability to write and report—still intact and as good as ever.

I called Simon at home in Bethesda, Maryland, where he lives with his wife, fellow Chicagoan and Sun-Times veteran, Marcia Kramer. Simon noted that with his new prosthetic legs, he walks almost as well as before, unaided by a cane. He said he was talking to me from the second floor of his house; he’d climbed those steps himself, as he does everyday now.

We talked about his medical nightmare and recovery, about Chicago and D.C. journalism, about why he left the Sun-Times, and what he misses about Chicago. The medical memories come first, followed by part two, coming Monday.

CF: So what happened to you?
RS:
It’s almost exactly two years ago. I remember coming back to work from having lunch in Georgetown with the political operative of the British Embassy, a very nice woman whose job it is to write political reports to 10 Downing Street every week assessing American politics. I remember going home, having dinner, going upstairs, and I remember nothing else for the next several weeks. I had developed an infection—something I ate, something I breathed. I had flu-like symptoms. Basically someone who works in the office of my then-doctor said, “It’s the flu, don’t worry about it. If it continues call us in 48 hours.” Forty-eight hours later, it was much too late. I didn’t have the flu. I had septicemia—blood poisoning. When Marcia called back 48 hours later, she finally talked to a doctor who said, “Get him to an ER.” The doctors there told her to call my sister and brother and tell them to come to Suburban Hospital in Bethesda if they wanted to ever see me again.

CF: And the coma?
RS:
They put me into an induced coma to keep the body at the lowest level of energy use possible. The doctors at some point told my wife, “We’re going to have to cut off his legs to save his organs.” It seems like a good trade. In technical terms, I’m a bilateral BK, which stands for “below the knee.” Technically speaking I did not lose my left leg but my left foot and part of the ankle, but from a practical sense, if you don’t have a foot it’s almost like not having a leg.

CF: Your wife was by your side throughout?
RS:
She stayed at my bedside, 24/7, talking to me when I was in a coma, holding up signs for me to read. I don’t remember any of the signs; sometimes something will come back to me that I think she told me. We were married in 1977, so we’ve been married approximately forever.

CF: So tell me about the seven weeks you spent at the National Rehabilitation Hospital.
RS:
I started in a wheelchair, and they put on prosthetic legs, they fit on… the [politically-correct] word is residual limbs, the un-PC term is stumps. I’m allowed to say stumps to other amputees. First you aren’t strong enough to even roll a wheelchair so you have an electric wheelchair. You lift weights, get strong enough to roll, and you do laps in the wheelchair, roll up to a parallel bar. Unfortunately for me, when I was still in a wheelchair, I saw a young guy in his early 20s roll up to the parallel bars. You’re supposed to grab the bars and boost yourself up on to your prosthetic feet. He had only one limb missing and was in good shape. He said, “I just can’t do it” and broke down in tears. I’m sure the guy tried and he’s walking today, but that was not a good thing for me to see. I said, “Oh, shit, I’m about 40 years older than this guy, I have two missing legs and he couldn’t do it.” I got to the parallel bars, I was able to lift myself up and then you sort of lurch from one foot to another, not really walking—throwing one leg out and then throwing the other leg out. Once I got both legs and walked, I went back to my main therapist. She hadn’t seen me in months because I was an outpatient. I was in a wheelchair when she last saw me. I walked down the hall to greet her, and she just burst into tears.

CF: How did a news junkie like you deal with basically being asleep for a month? Did you miss a lot of news?
RS:
Yes, we were at a dinner party and people talked about the terrible shooting at Fort Hood. I said, “What happened at Fort Hood?” It was very odd, not writing at all, not having to think about the next column. At first it was difficult for me even to turn pages. Unfortunately, two of the fingertips I lost were my index fingers. Turning a page becomes an acquired skill. It’s not like you can pick up a newspaper or The New Yorker and thumb through it. The New Yorker has very slick pages. I have to admit, for the first few weeks, I didn’t have much interest in the world at large. I had a feeding tube, hadn’t eaten or taken a drink in weeks.

CF: So you had lots of obstacles, passing the swallow test so the feeding tube could come out. You describe that as being a big achievement, just as you describe the achievement of being able to sit up in bed, and, eventually, opening your laptop and typing on the keyboard and realizing that you could still earn a living. Anything really stand out from those days?
RS:
One day the phone rang, I couldn’t reach it. The nurse answered. “Yes, he’s here.” She turned to me and said, “It’s the president of the United States.” She asked me if I thought it was a joke. It was probably Dan Balz [the Washington Post’s national political correspondent and Simon’s close friend since their days together at the U of I] who had asked Axelrod to arrange it. The call lasted about two minutes—we weren’t, and still are not, buddies. I try not to be real buddies with people I cover. I had interviewed Obama in his Senate office the week before he announced. When I was ready to go back to work in June 2010, I got an interview with him through Axelrod. I shamelessly used our friendship to muscle Axelrod into getting me an interview. It’s what reporters do: we exploit people for a living. [At a Washington reception] I said to Axelrod, “Look, it really would be great if I could get my first piece back with the president. I’m sitting in a wheelchair—I didn’t have any prosthetics then, I had two empty pants legs hanging down. Axelrod said, “I think I can make it happen.” He said, “No, I’m going to make it happen.” A few weeks later was the White House Correspondents dinner. I went in a wheelchair, with no legs, and [former White House press secretary] Robert Gibbs and the rest of the staff came up to me to say, “Great to see you.” Every now and then in Washington, you get to break the rules and be a human being. Gibbs told me, “You’ll get a call.” I did, and we got to the White House. Marcia waited outside the Oval Office. The first thing Obama said was, “You got 20 minutes.” Still didn’t have my legs, since your stumps have to heal enough so that they can take your weight. The last words [Obama] said to me were, “The next time I see you, you will be at the [White House] holiday party, and you’ll be walking.” I was walking with a cane by then and my first set of prosthetic legs. The First lady is a big hugger. She hugged me and my wife, and the president shook my hand and said, “It’s a very special day.”

CF: Any final thoughts on the illness and recovery?
RS:
People have emailed me and written me letters and told me how courageous I am. And I say, “It’s really easy to be courageous when you have no other choice.” It has turned out to be, at worst, an inconvenience—but not a tragedy. Losing two legs is not nothing, but there’s a lot of worse stuff than can happen to you. Prosthetics are developed to the point where if a person I didn’t know saw me, they would not guess I didn’t have legs. Although I would not say my gait is 100 percent, it’s pretty good. I can’t think of anything I could do before that I can’t do now. Do I snowboard now? No, but I didn’t before. Do I run triathlons? No, but I didn’t run them before either. I go out for a walk almost every day. It’s a beautiful day today. I’ll go out for a walk. I got my driver’s license a couple of months ago, and I use hand controls.

Share

Submit your comment

Comments are moderated. We review them in an effort to remove foul language, commercial messages, abuse, and irrelevancies.

Note: To serve its readers better, Chicago has migrated its comments to Disqus, a popular commenting platform. Please feel free to contact us with any feedback.