Dr. Marc Siegel: What Rand Paul's candid interview about his attack can teach us

Ever since Republican Sen. Rand Paul said he was blindsided and seriously injured by his neighbor while mowing the lawn of his home in Kentucky on Nov. 3, media speculation has abounded as to what sparked the attack. Some of it has been quite nasty. 

Paul’s neighbor, Rene Boucher, has been charged with misdemeanor assault and has pleaded not guilty.

Some speculated as to whether this was a Hatfield-McCoy type feud over landscaping. Other motivations were speculated about as well.

I sat down with the senator at his office in Washington this week for his first exclusive interview since being attacked. I gave him a chance to set the record straight about what happened, why it happened and how he is recovering.

The purpose of my visit to Paul's office was not to superimpose any of my own impressions or conceptions, but to obtain his. That's what reporting is all about.

Nevertheless, I couldn't help but notice that the senator – who is also a physician – did not in any way draw attention to his obvious pain, discomfort or injury. He is tough and does not want sympathy.

What Paul did emphasize was the detail of what it takes to overcome an injury like the one he suffered. He also showed me a dexterity of thinking that enables him to range from discussing a complex injury as a doctor to discussing taxes as a senator.

When it came to the attack itself, I had the sense that he was searching for a way to make sense of another person's anger and to counter it with the cordiality and friendship he feels with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle in the Senate. He would clearly like to see more civility in the country at large. 

“I think people see someone on TV and they think you are not real, that you don’t deserve any sort of compassion and that maybe you don’t hurt like a normal person,” Paul told me. “I think my wife said it best when she said I sort of got assaulted twice, you know, once in my yard somebody attacked me from behind and then the media, who thought it was sort of funny or gleeful, or that maybe I deserved it somehow.”

The senator continued: “And really nobody deserves to be attacked, you know? The kind of attack I got was kind of like what you would get from a motor vehicle accident. I mean I had six ribs broken, and you rarely see that even in an assault …. I’ve gone through weeks and weeks of struggling to get my breath.”

“I was working in my yard with my ear muffs on, you know, to protect my hearing from the mower,” Paul said. “And I got off the mower facing downhill and the attacker came running full blown. I never saw him, never had a conversation. In fact, the weird thing is I haven’t talked to him in 10 years.”

What happened?

The senator explained to me the nature of his injury.

“It happened on impact, it was either the initial impact, it was like a spearing injury like the NFL made illegal – to spear people from behind,” Paul said. “Basically, I was completely unaware he was running full speed downhill.”

Paul continued: “You can run pretty fast down a hill. He speared me in the back, and they either are broken (ribs) then or as I hit the ground, his shoulder probably plowed into me as I hit the ground. But it was on impact, the initial impact, or as we probably went through the air 10 to 12 feet, and then hit the ground again and so it happened with the initial impact, but it was from the force of his head and shoulders sort of spearing me in the back.”

Why did it happen?

I asked Paul if he knew what was going on in his neighbor’s mind. He replied: “I didn’t before the attack because we had no conversation. After my ribs were broken, then he said things to me to try to indicate why he was unhappy.”

Paul added: “It isn’t so important, if someone mugs you, is it really justified for any reason?”

There has been speculation, Paul said, that he was attacked in a dispute over yard clippings, but he dismissed that. Paul said he doesn’t know if the attack was motivated by hatred of President Trump, hatred of the senator, or because the attacker was angry at the senator for opposing ObamaCare. Or, maybe, there was something about the yard that motivated him. 

“You don’t really know what’s in someone’s mind,” Paul said. “It may have some relevance, but for the most part the real question should be: are you allowed to attack someone from behind in their yard when they are out mowing their grass? Even if you dislike something about their yard? So I guess in my mind, I don’t really care what his motives are, other than it’s cowardly and it’s criminal to attack someone from behind in their yard.”

How badly was he hurt?

“I initially didn’t know how badly I was hurt,” Paul said. “I knew that it hurt to breathe and I was breathing very shallowly and I thought I probably had broken some ribs but I didn’t know how bad it was going to be. So I was short of breath and every breath was painful.”

Paul added: “I knew I couldn’t lift my hands over my head to take my shirt off, and so I knew something had happened. I didn’t know how bad it was until the X-rays came back. It was also one of those things where the initial pain, the initial shortness of breath, wasn’t the full extent of the injury.”

“It got worse over about a 20-day period,” Paul told me, “so it became more and more difficult to be able to breathe in and out in a fashion without the bruising to my lungs … it was sort of a spasmodic breathing for about 20 days. But it made it sort of at this point where you felt like, ‘am I able to get enough oxygen in?’ Because not only the pain, but sort of the spasm of that, and after about 15 to 18 days, then the lung became infected because it had collapsed in an area.”

What happened with the pneumonia?                             

Paul returned to the Senate less than two weeks after the incident to help with President Trump’s tax reform plan. He describes miserable nights with fevers and night sweats, but decided to push through. 

However on the plane ride home, while on ibuprofen, his fever hit 102.6 and he says he realized it was time to get treatment. Paul says he got pneumonia in the area with the bruising of the lung, but is now on the mend.

The senator said he is not taking any opioids. “I can tolerate a lot of pain,” Paul said,“ and ibuprofen does help with a lot of things. I decided early on there are side effects from narcotics.” Paul is not against people taking pain medication, but says ibuprofen was enough to control his pain.

How long to completely heal?

“I’m still in pain, every time I breathe I can feel pain but it is not like a knife sticking in me like it was in the first three weeks,” Paul said. He estimates he will need six to eight weeks to heal and is hopeful his ribs will be strong enough to go back to normal activities without fear that he will break his ribs again. 

Message to America

Paul said he was struck by how angry some people are in America when they made callous comments online about his accident. However, he appreciates his Senate colleagues support through the attack.

“I will tell you in Washington if you want a good message out of this, (it) is every one of my Democratic colleagues came up to me and wished me well.” Paul said. “To tell you the truth, I think it is one of the unwritten stories in Washington. They think that ‘oh, incivility rules Washington.’ Nothing could be further from truth. As far as Republicans and Democrats talking, I’ve never had a cross word with a Democrat, I promise you, never.”

Note: Whitney Ksiazek contributed to this report.

Marc Siegel, M.D. is a professor of medicine and medical director of Doctor Radio at NYU Langone Medical Center. He has been a medical analyst and reporter for Fox News since 2008.