UPDATE: Barrow lawmaker Rep. Ben Nageak remains hospitalized
Last Updated: Feb. 26, 2015 at 7 a.m.
Normally when Rep. Ben Nageak speaks on the House floor, his colleagues expect to hear his booming voice — especially on the subject of developing oil and gas in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.
But on Tuesday, when the Barrow lawmaker’s voice suddenly faltered while talking about ANWR, lawmakers sensed something was wrong.
“You could see he was visibly slowing down and having some type of difficulty,” said Rep. Charisse Millett, the House majority leader, who also noticed the color from his face had faded.
When Nageak sat down after speaking and appeared in pain, two lawmakers sitting next to him went to his aid — Rep. Lance Pruitt and Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins.
Pruitt called for a recess.
The Senate also took a break, so two senators — Cathy Giessel, a registered nurse, and Donny Olson, a physician — could come to Nageak’s aid until an ambulance arrived.
Olson said he couldn’t talk about Nageak’s condition but said he was glad to help.
“It’s nice that if there is a challenge, I’m ready to meet it for a friend of mine I’ve worked closely with over the years,” said Olson, who called the Legislature a stressful environment.
“If people have had medical challenges in the past, this is one of the things that can push it to the brink,” Olson said.
Nageak was taken to Bartlett Regional Hospital in Juneau, where his staff says he has been listed in stable condition.
Earlier this month, Nageak had knee surgery in Seattle and experienced complications. He also has a history of heart problems.
House Speaker Mike Chenault said in a statement that Nageak did not suffer a heart attack on the House floor. Instead, his difficulties stemmed from a low blood count, related to blood transfusions that were part of his surgery. Chenault said Nageak is undergoing another round of transfusions to correct this problem and was being kept overnight for observation.
After Nageak was taken to the hospital, the House floor session resumed, but lawmakers were visibly shaken.
Rep. Craig Johnson called for a moment of silence so lawmakers could collectively wish for Nageak’s speedy recovery.
They also passed, in a unanimous vote, Nageak’s joint House and Senate resolution, HJR 10.
On the voting display board, there was an “E” next to Nageak’s name, designating that his absence was excused.
The Senate, when it reconvened, also took time out to acknowledge what had happened. Sen. Pete Kelly offered a prayer.
Since he was elected in 2012, Nageak, who wears a necklace of polar bear claws, has been a colorful figure in the Legislature.
Although he’s a Democrat, he joined the Republican majority’s caucus and has been one of their strongest voices for opening up ANWR to oil and gas development.
Nageak, who is an Inupiat, is known to speak his native language on the House floor to make a point.
He’s also known for his warmth and affection.
“He’s one of the happiest people I know,” Millett said. “He’s just got a twinkle in his eye. You always think he’s up to something. And he is. He’s up to making people happy.”
But on Tuesday, his colleagues were not happy, but concerned.
They’re hoping he’ll be back on the job soon to dispense his hugs and good cheer.
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