GREENSBORO — Former U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan made a rare public appearance Wednesday, more than two years after contracting a brain inflammation from a tick-borne virus.
Hagan, 66, of Greensboro attended the groundbreaking ceremony for a $61 million air traffic control tower at Piedmont Triad International Airport.
Hagan’s husband, Greensboro lawyer Chip Hagan, sat by her wheelchair and assisted her in holding a groundbreaking spade in her lap while she wore a hard hat.
The former Democratic senator smiled as speakers thanked her for her role in procuring the federal money for the airport tower while she served in the U.S. Senate from 2009 to 2015.
Hagan did not speak publicly but shared private greetings with well-wishers at the ceremony.
Chip Hagan said in an interview later Wednesday that his wife’s post-virus health has not allowed her to get out often so she was especially glad to attend the airport ceremony and greet friends and people she worked with during her career.
“Kay’s ability to speak is limited, but her comprehension is very good,” Hagan said. She can speak, he said, but it’s slow and labored.
Airport Executive Director Kevin Baker personally invited Kay Hagan, whom he considers pivotal in moving a project forward that wasn’t getting much attention in Washington, he said in an interview after the ceremony.
He remembers how she visited the airport late one Friday after she became a senator. She had been invited by then-Airport Authority Chairman Henry Isaacson.
“She climbed up into the tower, and she learned firsthand what its limitations are,” Baker said. “She then made it her charge to help get our project out of the doldrums and moving along.”
He said he was happy to see her at the groundbreaking.
“I’m not sure if there could be anything more appropriate than for her to be part of that,” said Baker, who gave his groundbreaking spade and hard hat to Hagan after the ceremony.
Chip Hagan said his wife’s illness still limits her ability to control her muscles. “She still has a great deal of difficulty in standing and walking and that sort of stuff,” he said.
The last nine months have been difficult for her, he said. “We’re just now beginning to get her back out and around a little bit so she can see her friends.”
In December 2016, Hagan was in Washington when she fell ill and was admitted to a hospital with encephalitis, an inflammation of the brain. Her family said later that the condition was caused by Powassan virus, transmitted to people by ticks.
She was hospitalized at an Atlanta rehabilitation hospital for about six months before beginning outpatient treatment.
Chip Hagan said she continues with physical therapy. “She is a very — I won’t say stubborn — but a very determined person, and she is working very hard to try to improve the situation,” he said.
Before venturing into politics, Kay Hagan worked as both an attorney and in finance, becoming vice president of the estates and trust division and the private banking division at N.C. National Bank, a predecessor of Bank of America, in Greensboro.
She served as a county campaign manager for one of former Gov. Jim Hunt’s gubernatorial campaigns. She was later elected to the N.C. Senate and served there for 10 years.
In 2007, she began campaigning for U.S. Senate. She defeated Republican incumbent Sen. Elizabeth Dole and took office in Washington in 2009.
Hagan served in Washington for six years before being unseated in 2014 by Republican Thom Tillis in what was at the time the nation’s most expensive U.S. Senate race.
After her Senate term, Hagan became a resident fellow at the Harvard Institute of Politics.
Before her illness, she worked as a consultant for a lobbying and law firm on Capitol Hill.
Chip Hagan said she is especially proud of the work she did helping PTI to get the air traffic control tower so it can continue expanding.
“She was very pleased with the event,” he said. “She was very pleased that she was able to do something for the people of Greensboro. ... She was really committed to trying to do what she could for the airport while she was in office.”