VERNON—As Vermont lawmakers convene at the Statehouse this week for the 2016 legislative session, Rep. Mike Hebert might not be able to get to work around 6 a.m. every day, as is his habit.
But he’ll be there, and that was far from a given just a few months ago.
After falling “gravely ill” in the fall due to surgical complications, the Vernon Republican is on the mend.
As Hebert gears up for a busy session, he’s also taking time to thank those who have visited or called to offer help, good wishes or a prayer — including many of his colleagues from the other side of the aisle.
“It was a bit overwhelming at times. You’re just kind of like, ‘Oh, my God — people really care,’” Hebert said last month as he rested on his couch at home. “People don’t see that side of the political world, and that’s what makes you want to go back. They’re good people. You may not agree with their policies, but they’re good people trying to do a good job.”
Hebert, serving his third term in a district that consists of his hometown and neighboring Guilford, has gained a reputation as a tireless legislator.
He also has been deeply involved in the community. Hebert is a longtime member and current chairman of the Vernon School Board, and he has spent time as a political leader, sports coach, and member of the Vermont Natural Resources Board, among other activities.
Weeks in the hospital
In September, health problems took Hebert out of commission.
It started with sudden, late-night pain that spurred gallbladder surgery in Brattleboro, and the situation quickly took a turn for the worse when severe complications from that surgery led to his transfer to Baystate Medical Center in Springfield, Mass.
Hebert said he’s been told that, had he not gotten to Baystate as quickly as he did, “there would have been not much they could have done.”
He spent weeks in the hospital, and he can’t recall much about his worst days at Baystate other than the fact that his wife of 42 years, Deb, was constantly by his side.
“I’ve had people who have come to visit me at the house now who came to visit me at the hospital, and I have no recollection of their being there,” Hebert said.
Hebert made it back to Vernon in October, but he said it’s been “a long road” to regain his health. In December, he was still undergoing regular physical therapy.
“They said I’ll be 100 percent probably mid-February, because I’ve got to regain the muscle mass that I lost,” he said. “At this point, it’s just a matter of regaining physical strength.”
That’s not to say Hebert was taking it easy as 2015 came to a close. He traveled to Montpelier for a legislative briefing, and he was planning to touch base with Vernon and Guilford officials before heading back north for the start of the 2016 session.
“I have no concerns about getting back to Montpelier and doing the job I need to do,” he said, while acknowledging that 6 a.m. arrivals at the Statehouse may not be in the cards during the first month of the session.
“I don’t want to wear myself down,” Hebert said. “But as time goes on, I’m getting stronger, I feel better and I’m more confident in what I can do.”
Friends from across the aisle
Hebert can count Windham County Sen. Becca Balint among those who will “be happy to see him back in the Statehouse.” Hebert is the sole Republican legislator in Windham County, but he’s got no shortage of friends who tout his community contributions.
Balint, a Brattleboro Democrat, laments the fact that Hebert’s illness forced him to miss a September celebration of the pending return of Guilford’s Sweet Pond. The Vernon lawmaker had pushed hard over the past few years for funding to restore the dam at Sweet Pond State Park, resulting in a $495,000 allocation of state funding over two years.
“We’re on opposing teams [politically],” Balint said. “But he is so community minded. He cares fiercely about Guilford and Vernon. Regardless of where he and I stand on policy issues, I respect him for that.”
Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, was among those visiting Hebert through his ordeal. Though Trieber and Hebert serve different parts of the county and their committee work doesn’t much overlap, they’ve formed a bond that goes beyond legislative duties.
“I consider Mike Hebert to be one of my closest friends,” Trieber said. “I’ve come to respect his opinion as someone who’s not just giving a knee-jerk reaction [...] he always has a real reason for doing something.”
“In Vermont, because of the way the General Assembly is set up, we have a real ability to get to know the other people there as human beings,” Trieber added. “Those types of relationships and those types of conversations are how you make sure that the best legislation happens.”
Hebert’s looking forward to getting back to that kind of work. At 65, he’s not interested in slowing down.
“I will always be involved in something,” he said. “At this point, I don’t know how I could retire and sit on a porch.”