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Health Scare: What's Next for Hillary?

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It was a rough month: Stomach flu led to a fainting spell, which brought on a concussion, and then a blood clot was discovered near her brain. But after three days in the hospital Hillary Clinton appears to have emerged with her humor intact. In a meeting on Jan. 7, her first day back at the State Department, a deputy presented her with a box and said, “‘We have a gift for you, Madam Secretary-something you can use to protect yourself in your own household,'” says Ambassador Melanne Verveer, who was on hand. Inside the box, a well-padded football helmet with the State seal on the side, and a jersey with No. 112-her tally of countries visited while on the job. “She just laughed and laughed,” says Verveer. “She’s always had a great sense of humor, especially poking fun at herself.” But after the giggles, “it was, ‘Okay, let’s get to work.'”

Clinton, 65, soon made clear that a head injury would not be the coda to her more than three decades in public service. The only First Lady to move on to the Senate and then State Department had hoped to hand the baton to presumed successor Sen. John Kerry after a valedictory tour in Asia, where she began her travels as Secretary in 2009. Now, on blood-thinning medication and under a neurologist’s orders to avoid long flights, she scrapped that trip. Instead, she is working from Washington, meeting with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and planning a farewell “town hall” to field questions from people worldwide via Skype and social media. Her schedule is “compressed now,” says Verveer.

One priority is appearing before a congressional panel investigating the Sept. 11 attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya. After her concussion became public, some Republican commentators joked that she had caught “Benghazi flu” to avoid testifying about the killing of Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and three others. (State Department spokesman Philippe Reines calls the jibes “despicable.”)

Rather than avoiding her duties, Clinton was, throughout her hospitalization and recovery at home in Chappaqua, N.Y., “itching to get back to her life,” says a source close to her. “It’s hard to go from her normal pace to zero.” Walking with her cell phone through the halls of New York-Presbyterian Hospital, Clinton (in street clothes, not a hospital gown) kept in touch with Kerry and President Obama. “I’m trying to be a compliant patient,” she told advisers when she called in to a Jan. 3 meeting. “That does require a certain level of patience, which I’ve had to cultivate.”

But her “all-business” demeanor belied the gravity of Clinton’s diagnosis-a blood clot that, untreated, could have led to a stroke-and the panic felt by the family for whom she’s so often the backbone. Husband Bill fretted publicly about the pace his wife had been keeping, while daughter Chelsea, 32, was at the hospital with her mother “what felt like all the time,” says the source. “Chelsea was scared,” says a family friend who spoke with her. “Particularly when you see your mom as invincible.”

Clinton had been saying for years that she’s tired. “She wants a break and is excited to have a free schedule,” says the friend. Her tenure at State came without pause on the heels of a grueling 2008 presidential campaign. But doctors say that stress is not a factor in her type of blood clot. And Dr. Ralph Sacco, head of neurology at the University of Miami, says that, while he has not treated Clinton, he sees no reason her recent scare would rule out a run for President in 2016: “Once the clot is treated and her head trauma heals over time, this will be a thing of the past.”

But while many are clamoring for her to try again for the White House-“I’m amazed at the number of women who tell me she must run for President,” says her friend Ellen Chesler-Clinton has said she isn’t interested, and won’t be making any quick decisions. “I want to catch up on mundane things like sleep and cleaning closets,” she mused to People in March 2011, after announcing she would not serve a second term as Secretary of State. Only then, she added, “I’ll figure out what the next chapter is.”