A frail Sen. Dianne Feinstein continues to vote as new details emerge about her health

WASHINGTON, DC - MAY 18: Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) attends a Senate Judiciary Business Meeting at the Senate Dirksen Office Building on Capitol Hill on Thursday, May 18, 2023 in Washington, DC. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
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It's police week here at the nation's Capitol, and, with law enforcement officers flowing through the halls, the Senate Judiciary Committee took up several bills meant to support law enforcement.

Amid debate about legislation Thursday to recruit officers who agree to serve in their home communities, California's senior senator spoke up.

"I just wanted to say one thing, and that’s about cops on the beat," Sen. Dianne Feinstein said — in her first extended public remarks since she returned to Washington, D.C., after several months at home in San Francisco with shingles.

"I was mayor of San Francisco for nine years," she said. "There was no program more favorable with people than police on the streets. They got to know them. There was a positive relationship. The crime rate went down.

"Anything we can do to help I think we should," Feinstein added.

Feinstein, 89, used a wheelchair to move around the Capitol and appeared sprier than in recent days. She walked into the hearing chamber and spoke for longer and more cogently than she did last week. During the May 11 hearing, she read her yes vote from a note and asked to be recorded as voting in person on three other judges whose nominations were raised before her arrival.

In the ensuing days she was scarcely seen except to vote on the Senate floor. Moving through the halls with Nancy Pelosi's eldest daughter, Nancy Corinne Prowda, at her side, Feinstein looked frailer than before her absence and struggled to walk very far without the supportive arm of an aide. Prowda is a longtime family friend who is not on Feinstein’s staff.

"Nancy Corrine is a dear friend of Senator Feinstein’s going back more than 40 years. She has been spending time with the senator as she continues to recover from shingles,” Feinstein spokesman Adam Russell said.

Feinstein's eyelid and face appear to droop, which is a side effect of shingles known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome. It's a partial paralysis and relatively common for people who have shingles rashes on their face.

She has also had a case of encephalitis, a swelling of the brain, according to Russell. This complication from shingles, which was first reported by the New York Times on Thursday, can be debilitating, causing memory loss and other effects.

“While the encephalitis resolved itself shortly after she was released from the hospital in March, she continues to have complications from Ramsay Hunt syndrome,” Russell said.

A number of viruses and bacteria can cause infections leading to encephalitis, said Dr. Felicia Chow, a specialist in neuro-infectious diseases at University of California San Francisco Health. One of them is the varicella-zoster virus, which can cause shingles.

Not all cases lead to encephalitis, she said; but if the virus causes inflammation of the brain, it can lead to serious impacts on the mental status of patients, including reduced cognition, changes in personality, impaired memory and confusion.

“Any function that the brain is responsible for — it can affect,” Chow said.

Several factors can contribute to the impact encephalitis has on a patient, including what part of the brain is affected by the infection, and if the patient had previous cognitive issues.

“If at baseline they have some impairment of the brain, some injury, dementia or something else, if a patient like that has preexisting issues, then they may be at risk of not recovering,” Chow said.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein uses a wheelchair to get around the Capitol
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) uses a wheelchair to get around the Capitol with her staff and Nancy Corinne Prowda, a daughter of Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

On Tuesday, Feinstein spoke with two reporters — including one from The Times — alongside Prowda and appeared to not recall she'd been absent from Congress for months due to her illness.

“I haven’t been gone,” she said. “I’ve been working.”

“You’ve been working from home is what you’re saying?” the reporter asked.

“No, I’ve been here. I’ve been voting. Please, either know or don’t know,” Feinstein said.

The interaction came on the heels of several reports, including one last year in the San Francisco Chronicle, that described the deterioration of her memory. Feinstein at the time dismissed the stories, saying she was fit to serve. The powerful senator is famous for being a very hands-on boss, and the case of shingles appears to have taken a toll.

It has raised questions about whether she can finish her term, which ends in 2025. Three members of the House of Representatives are competing for her seat on next year's ballot: Democratic Reps. Adam B. Schiff of Burbank, Katie Porter of Irvine and Barbara Lee of Oakland.

Still, her presence in the Senate is essential for Democrats to pursue their agenda — including confirming judges — while maintaining maximum leverage.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer has asked his colleagues, who are out on recess, to be available on 24 hours' notice to return to Washington next week to vote on raising the country’s borrowing limit, which is the biggest controversy in halls of government at the moment. The New York Democrat, who was in contact with Feinstein during her absence and was by her side when she returned, lauded the chamber’s ability to confirm 10 federal judges during this recent monthlong work period.

Feinstein was integral in this work, including helping confirm Nancy Abudu to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals on Thursday on a 49-47 vote. Abudu, a civil rights attorney, is the first Black woman to be confirmed to the 11th Circuit.

"We have a duty to ensure that federal judges are individuals of the highest caliber, and that includes appointing judges from a wide variety of personal and professional backgrounds," Schumer said, adding that the Senate has confirmed 129 judges this term.

Schumer declined to comment about Feinstein as he walked off the Senate floor after speaking and sending the chamber out on break.

After the Judiciary vote Thursday, Prowda, Pelosi's daughter , shielded Feinstein from reporters hoping to ask questions.

Two photographers backpedaled to capture her exit, and Feinstein asked, "What are they doing?"

"They’re just gathering news clips," Prowda said.

Times staff photographer Kent Nishimura contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.