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Lost voice cuts Grand Rapids speech short for the first lady

Two women sit on the left of the stage while a third woman, Carolyn Mazure, stands at a podium giving a speech. Behind them, to the left, are three American flags, and, to the right, is a state of Michigan flag. Behind them, a large circular seal reads "Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation."
Dustin Dwyer
Michigan Public
Carolyn Mazure, chair of the White House Initiative on Women's Health Research, stands in for first lady Jill Biden, who sits to her right, during a speech in Grand Rapids Friday, April 26, 2024.

The nation’s first lady came to Grand Rapids this afternoon for a speech on women’s health, hosted by the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation. But when it came time to actually speak, Jill Biden’s words were brief, and raspy.

“I woke up this morning feeling a little under the weather and without a voice. And I said to myself, ‘Oh my God, what am I going to do?’ And I said, ‘Well, what would Betty Ford do?”

Biden, who was speaking at the foundation’s annual First Ladies Luncheon, said the thought of Grand Rapids’ own late Betty Ford spurred her to not cancel the event.

“I decided I wanted to come here and be with all of you,” Biden said. “So, Betty, I’m here for you.”

Biden then said she wasn’t sure how much longer her voice would hold out, so she turned the podium over instead to Carolyn Mazure, who leads the White House Initiative on Women’s Health Research.

Biden has been traveling the country giving speeches since the initiative was announced last fall. The White House highlighted a new commitment to spend $100 million on women’s health research. The president also called for an additional $12 billion in spending on women’s health research during his State of the Union speech earlier this year.

“Even though we are half the population, women’s health is understudied and research is underfunded,” Mazure said, speaking in Grand Rapids in place of the First Lady. “Too many studies have left women out. And too many of the medications, treatments and medical textbooks are based on men and their bodies, and that information does not always apply to women.”

“If you ask any woman in America about her health care, she probably has a story to tell."
Carolyn Mazure, chair of the White House Initiative on Women's Health Research, speaking in place of First Lady Jill Biden

Mazure, who is also a professor at Yale, said the lack of research creates gaps in the understanding of health issues that primarily, or solely, affect women.

“If you ask any woman in America about her health care, she probably has a story to tell,” Mazure said. “You know her. She’s the woman who gets debilitating migraines but doesn’t know why and can’t find treatment options that work for her. She’s the woman going through menopause who visits her doctor and leaves with more questions than answers, even though half the country will go through menopause at some point in their lives. She’s the woman whose heart attack isn’t recognized because her symptoms don’t look like a man’s, even as heart disease is the leading cause of death among women.”

The speech delivered in Grand Rapids focused on the research side of women’s health, and there was no mention of access to abortion services, or abortion rights — issues that have been front and center so far in the 2024 presidential campaign.

The last White House official to visit Grand Rapids made abortion rights the focus of her comments. Vice President Kamala Harris spoke in the city in February, saying “the people of Michigan cannot sit back and take comfort” in the abortion rights now enshrined in the state constitution.

Dustin Dwyer reports enterprise and long-form stories from Michigan Public’s West Michigan bureau. He was a fellow in the class of 2018 at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. He’s been with Michigan Public since 2004, when he started as an intern in the newsroom.