On Thursday, Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was hospitalized with three broken ribs after a fall on Wednesday evening in her office.
Ginsburg, 85, reportedly went home after her fall. After experiencing discomfort overnight, she called Supreme Court police to take her to George Washington University Hospital, where she was admitted for treatment and observation. Doctors found three broken ribs on her left side, said Kathy Arberg, a Supreme Court spokeswoman.
Fractured ribs are a common injury, and Ginsburg’s injuries are not considered life threatening.
With at least two more years of the Trump administration and a Republican-dominated Senate on the horizon, Ginsburg’s injury brought forth fervent interest in her health and longevity.
At 85, Ginsburg, who was appointed in 1993, is the oldest justice on the court.
For people of Ginsburg’s age, fractured ribs are a relatively common, though painful, injury. Rarely is there a need for surgical intervention or orthopedic treatment. The severity of the injury depends in part on whether the ribs are cracked or broken all the way through. In Ginsburg’s case, the extent of her injury has not been disclosed.
Alison Mainardi, an internist with the American Infusion Center in New York City who has dealt with patients with fractured ribs, told the Daily Beast that complications from rib fractures are infrequent but not unheard of. “When a fracture causes the patient pain from deep breathing, a slight collapse of the lung can occur,” Mainardi told The Daily Beast. That collapse can make breathing difficult and require treatment.
Mainardi added that patients experiencing pain from fractured ribs may be reluctant to cough, and that cough suppression can result in the formation of a secondary chest infection—which can be life threatening, particularly for someone of Ginsburg’s age.
In most cases, fractured ribs will simply heal on their own in a matter of weeks, though Mainardi estimated that complications may occur in as many as 30 percent of cases. As Mainardi cautioned, “the older a patient, the more likely they are to experience complications.”
The incidence of osteoporosis as well as decreased muscle mass are chief factors in the greater risk to older patients as is greater susceptibility to infection and pneumonia. These risk factors and the risk of potential complications usually result in longer hospital stays for older patients with broken ribs.
Treatment for rib fractures involves time and patience, consisting of rest, deep breathing exercises (including use of an incentive spirometer, a simple device that measures air intake and breathing pace), and pain management.
This is not the first time Ginsburg has dealt with health issues.
In 1999, she was diagnosed with colon cancer and underwent surgery followed by both chemotherapy and radiation treatment during which she didn’t miss a single day on the bench. Ginsburg underwent surgery again in 2009, this time for pancreatic cancer. In 2012, Justice Ginsburg disclosed that she had recently broken two ribs in a fall but had not taken any time off after the injury because of the court’s heavy workload at the time. And in 2014, she had a stent placed in her right coronary artery after experiencing discomfort while exercising in the Supreme Court gym.
Justice Ginsburg has said in the past that she will serve as long as her physical health and mental acuity remain intact. During a speaking appearance in New York in July, Ginsburg said she expected to serve on the court for at least five more years. “I'm now 85," she said. “My senior colleague, Justice John Paul Stevens, he stepped down when he was 90, so think I have about at least five more years."
When she was asked last year if she was anticipating retirement, Ginsburg said, “As long as I can do the job full steam, I will do it.”