Why did Mitch McConnell freeze during a press conference? An emergency physician weighs in on his health scare

Mitch McConnell stands behind a podium at a news conference, while John Barrasso and Joni Ernst hold onto his wrists. Other officials stand behind Mitch McConnell.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., center, is helped by, from left, Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyo., Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, after the 81-year-old GOP leader froze at the microphones as he arrived for a news conference, at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, July 26, 2023. McConnell went to his office for a few minutes and returned to speak with reporters. AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

Editor’s note: Sen. Mitch McConnell again froze during a press conference on Wednesday, Aug. 30,  after he was asked about running for re-election in 2026. When McConnell froze during a press conference in July, Northeastern Global News interviewed Michael Bessette, an assistant clinical professor and medical director of the university’s Physician Assistant Program.

Rare are the moments when a politician takes to a podium in front of an assembly of reporters and can’t get the words out. Even the most unseasoned of them can ad lib to save face during the all-too-common—given the advanced age of many of the nation’s leaders—mental lapse.

But rarer are the moments when a politician freezes in front of the nation while experiencing an acute medical episode. That’s how Michael Bessette, an assistant clinical professor in the Bouvé College of Health Sciences and medical director of the Physician Assistant Program, characterizes the 20 or so seconds Republican Sen. Mitch McConnell stood “frozen” during a weekly press conference in July.

After the incident, McConnell was whisked off to his office after it was clear he was not all right. When asked about the moment later, McConnell, who is 81, joked that he had been “sandbagged,” referring to the incident in which President Joe Biden tripped over a sandbag at the U.S. Air Force Academy in June.

But medical professionals say McConnell’s disorientation is no laughing matter. Asked what he thinks happened to McConnell, Bessette, a retired emergency physician, says he believes the lawmaker experienced an “acute” medical event that could have been classified, clinically speaking, as an emergency. 

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“Generally, I split these [events] into three categories,” Bessette says.

Those categories include a possible metabolic issue, such as low blood sugar, infection or some other condition that interferes with the body’s ability to function normally; a cardiac issue, such as a heart attack or a heart rhythm problem such as atrial fibrillation, which could obstruct blood flow to the brain; or a neurologic issue, such as a stroke, a transient ischemic attack—often referred to as “mini-strokes”—or a seizure. 

Asked how he would have evaluated McConnell, were he a patient, Bessette said: “A lot depends on what his history and physical exams show. At the very least, I would have checked his blood sugar; that’s a common problem that we see and it’s an easy fix.”

“I would also do an electrocardiogram [ECG], which is also quick and easy,” he continued. “Whether or not you’re doing a CT scan of his head—at his age, I would say that there’s a 90% chance I’d do that unless I encountered some reason that says otherwise.”

To determine the likely cause of McConnell’s moment of daze would require knowledge of his behavior leading up to, and following, the acute episode. 

“A lot of it depends on how he was acting before and after the episode, and what if anything he can recall from [it],” Bessette says. “That is what gives you a lot of the best information about how to narrow down the list of possible causes.” 

Earlier this year, McConnell suffered a fall that resulted in an injured rib and a concussion. Though he is deemed to have recovered, the lingering effects from such a brain injury could have caused McConnell to go quiet—particularly considering the senator’s advanced age, says Art Kramer, professor of psychology and founding director of the Center for Cognitive & Brain Health at Northeastern. 

“Concussion effects can last for much longer than we used to think,” Kramer says. “This is why coaches are getting a lot of flak for sending men and women who’ve been injured back into games.” 

“And as you get older, concussions have more serious effects,” Kramer says. “We know this. That shouldn’t be surprising.”

Bessette says that concussion-related trauma might have been in play as well.

“Concussions can damage an area of the brain that then can be linked to the development of seizures,” he says. 

Tanner Stening is a Northeastern Global News reporter. Email him at t.stening@northeastern.edu. Follow him on Twitter @tstening90.