A month earlier, she’d undergone surgery stemming from a kidney cancer diagnosis. Doctors took out her seventh rib and with it a tumor. In place of bone was now a 7-inch long titanium plate screwed to the rib’s remaining ends.
Needless to say, it was a painful procedure. But Hirono returned to work quickly. Now, as the Senate began debate on a bill that, while deemed “skinny,” would dramatically undo insurance coverage gains under Obamacare, that slab of titanium served as a reminder of the stakes. She thought of her unexpected diagnosis, her scars (emotional and physical) and her family’s own health struggles. Then, she stood up to speak.
“We hesitate to open ourselves up to the kind of personal remarks that I made that night,” Hirono said of that moment in an interview with The Daily Beast. “I don’t really do that that often because it is kind of scary. I sat there with great trepidation because I didn’t know if I could get through it, going through my family’s history and my sister’s death… But as I sat there, I thought this may be the last time I may be able to speak out on this.”
It’s not all that often that lawmakers bring direct, personal experiences to a legislative debate. Few members of Congress, for example, have lived on food stamps, or know undocumented immigrants, or have relatives serving overseas, despite being asked to cast votes on all those matters.
Health care is decidedly different. Virtually every elected official has had an experience with the health care industry. And if they haven’t, they know someone intimately who has.
This summer, two U.S. senators received cancer diagnoses as Obamacare repeal and replace efforts were underway. Each played a dramatic role in defeating those efforts. Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ), who is fighting brain cancer, cast the deciding vote against the Senate GOP’s bill while Hirono became the unexpected voice of the Democratic opposition to it.
“Mazie is one of the toughest people in the Senate—and her diagnosis gave everyone an opportunity to see that in three dimensions,” said her fellow Hawaii Senator Brian Schatz (D-HI). “She’s not inclined to wear her heart on her sleeve, so when she gave that speech, the impact was enormous.”
It was a role Hirono never imagined playing. Her cancer was discovered by chance. She had gone in for a physical for eye surgery when an X-ray revealed a mass on her rib. That led to more scans and the discovery of a tumor on her kidney. When her physician sat her down, she demanded he answer a question before presenting the diagnosis.
“Am I going to die any time soon?”
“No,” he said, explaining the complications and recovery that come with stage 4 kidney cancer.
On May 16, Hirono announced her diagnosis. The next day, she had surgery at Georgetown University Hospital to remove her kidney.
“I had never been hospitalized before in my entire life except when I was age 17 and that was a false alarm,” Hirono said. “I really thought the major illnesses happen to other people. I found out otherwise.”
The day Hirono came out of surgery was the day that Bob Mueller was appointed special counsel in the Russia probe. Hirono called her office to make sure they put out a statement, then begged off the phone because she was “feeling really nauseous.” A month and a half later, she had the second procedure to remove her rib.
The health care debate drew her back into the legislative fray in ways she hadn’t experienced before. She held town halls back in Hawaii and partook in a Democratic talk-a-thon on the Senate floor designed to spotlight concerns with the Medicaid cuts and insurance market reforms in the Republican-authored legislation. She appeared alongside her colleagues at rallies with protesters outside the chamber.
“This diagnosis lent a tremendous immediacy to what we were contemplating doing,” she explained.
By last Thursday night, Hirono had become convinced that it was all for naught. The “skinny” bill that the Senate was considering looked like it would have the 50 votes needed for passage. And though Senate Republicans had conditioned their support for the measure on an assurance the House wouldn’t adopt it, she assumed that the pledge was meaningless, that the House would act on “skinny repeal,” and the bill would become law.
Hirono’s speech that night dripped with emotion. She recounted how she wasn’t born in a hospital; how her sister died from pneumonia at the age of 2 “not in a hospital where maybe her life could have been saved;” how her family came from Japan only to build a life in Hawaii where they couldn’t find insurance; how she feared they’d be bankrupted by a single illness. As she fought back tears, Hirono begged Republicans to show the same compassion that “you showed me when I was diagnosed with my illness.” And then she asked for her fellow cancer victim, John McCain, to vote his “conscience.”
Hirono wouldn’t discuss on the record the conversations that she had with McCain. They were too personal.
Hours after her speech, the Arizona senator voted with the Democrats.