PROVIDENCE — When she first felt pain in her back, she didn’t think too much of it. “I thought I had just slept wrong or pulled something,” she said.
But state Senator Jeanine Calkin learned that the pain was caused by a large kidney stone, and then the alarming revelations came in rapid succession: The kidney stone caused an infection. A blood clot formed. And the clot moved into her aorta, cutting off circulation to her right leg and weakening her left leg.
Soon, it became clear that her life was in danger. So on April 23, doctors amputated her right leg above the knee.
The ordeal didn’t end there. Her kidney was not functioning, so she went on dialysis. Doctors determined the kidney would not come back, and on May 21, they removed the infected kidney.
“It came out of the blue,” she said.
Calkin, 51, a Warwick Democrat, remained in a rehabilitation center in Providence on Tuesday, looking forward to returning home in the next week or so.
“I’m getting used to the amputation and preparing to use a prosthesis and wheelchair,” she said. “It’s going pretty well, and I am hoping to be home soon. I’m looking to get back to as much of a normal life as can be.”
During the last few weeks of this year’s legislative session, which ended July 1, Calkin was able to watch Senate sessions remotely and vote by proxy.
And now she’s itching to get back to work. If the General Assembly does return for a special fall session, she said, “I will try to be there in person.”
Calkin founded Rhode Island for Bernie Sanders in 2015 before winning a Senate seat in 2016. She lost the seat to Mark P. McKenney in 2018 but beat him in a rematch in 2020.
She is one of three co-chairs of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative. The group of progressives formed in 2019, backing a slate of Assembly candidates and setting an ambitious goal: to win enough legislative seats to “form a new governing majority” and install a new House speaker and new Senate president.
The cooperative helped elect more progressives in the 2020 elections, and is now backing Geena Pham in the special election in the Senate District 3.
Senator Gayle L. Goldin, a Providence Democrat, announced last week that she was stepping down to join President Joe Biden’s administration as a senior adviser in the US Labor Department’s Women’s Bureau.
Calkin said she plans to take part in phone banking for Pham, a public school teacher in Massachusetts, whom she believes would be the first Asian-American to serve in the General Assembly. “That would be great, obviously, because that demographic is under-served in the Assembly,” she said.
When Goldin announced her departure, Hilary Levey Friedman immediately stepped down as president of the Rhode Island chapter of the National Organization for Women to run for the Senate District 3 seat. Both Levey Friedman and Pham are Democrats, so it looks like there will be a primary on Oct. 5, followed by the general election on Nov. 2.
Goldin, who championed abortion rights and paid family leave legislation and challenged the Senate leadership, will be missed, Calkin said.
“We are going to be losing a strong voice up there,” she said. “But I wish her all the best. The Biden administration will be better off having her as part of their team.”
Calkin said she hopes to see more progressives elected to the Assembly in 2022. “I hope that we make up even more ground and maybe even change the Senate leadership to more progressive leadership,” she said. “There is still a lot to do.”
Calkin said she has received lots of support during her recovery – from good friends and constituents as well as from non-constituents. “I received so many cards and flowers,” she said. “It has been really nice to have that support. It can brighten your day.”
Throughout it all, she said she has received constant support from Jennifer Rourke, a friend and fellow co-chair of the Rhode Island Political Cooperative.
Rourke said Calkin stayed “super positive” in the face of a shocking health scare. “She has been a fighter through all of this,” she said. “I’m proud to be her friend.”
Rourke, a Warwick Democrat, has run against Senate Majority Leader Michael J. McCaffrey in the past two election cycles, and she said she plans to challenge him again in a primary in 2022. She said many issues remain to be addressed at the State House. For example, she called for legalizing recreational marijuana and using the resulting revenue to build better schools and improve mental health programs.
Rourke said Calkin has remained focused on getting better and getting back to work.
“I need her. The people in District 30 need her. Her husband needs her,” she said. “Jeanine’s voice is one that we need at the State House.”