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Article updated: 5/9/2012 7:29 AM

Kirk reveals details of late January stroke

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, in a photo taken from a video released Tuesday, participates in therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The Highland Park Republican is recovering from a stroke he had in January.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, in a photo taken from a video released Tuesday, participates in therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The Highland Park Republican is recovering from a stroke he had in January.

 
In a photo released April 19, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, talks with staff members. Kirk suffered a stroke in January.

In a photo released April 19, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, talks with staff members. Kirk suffered a stroke in January.

 

Courtesy of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicag

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His gait is slow but steady. His voice deliberate but strong. His writing detailed and clear.

Hours apart from one another Tuesday, Sen. Mark Kirk's staff released the first video and writings of the Highland Park Republican since his stroke in late January, one Kirk himself describes in detail as "something profound happening inside my skull."

Nearly four months later, Kirk is shown in the video walking on a treadmill and down a hallway at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago as doctors work with him to help fully regain the use of his left side.

The video clips shot by staff over the past week show the senator at times using a cane, at other times wearing weights on his legs and a mask on his face to track his breathing.

Kirk, 52, who has been in the care of the Rehabilitation Institute for the last several months, says he is anxious to get back to work but gives no timetable for doing so. He thanks the people of Illinois for "the patience they have given me to recover from a big stroke." Kirk was released from the Rehabilitation Institute last week but is participating in an outpatient walking program to further his mobility and independence.

A tongue-in-cheek Kirk in the video describes the therapists' "devious ways of making things more difficult" -- including having him walk with weights around his ankle.

On the morning of Jan. 21, Kirk was preparing to travel from Highland Park to a Chicago event when a headache and dizziness suddenly came on, an experience he wrote about for the first time in a letter published Tuesday night and supplied exclusively to the Chicago Tribune, according to his staff.

"The headache worsened as the morning progressed, but I wanted to keep to my work schedule. At 11 a.m., a member of my staff, Andrew Weissert, picked me up at my house in Highland Park to take me to a noon meeting of my Eastern European Advisory Board in Chicago," Kirk wrote in the letter. "In the car, I felt new symptoms -- numbness in my hands and problems with my vision. I realized this was not a headache or even a migraine."

From the car, he called his doctor and friend Jay Alexander, who told the Naval Reserve officer and former 10th District congressman to "get to the emergency room at Lake Forest Hospital as soon as possible and he would meet me there."

Kirk's condition only worsened.

At Lake Forest, doctors discovered a carotid artery dissection in the right side of his neck, in which a flap of tissue blocked the flow of blood in the carotid artery to the brain. They sent him by ambulance to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago,

"On Sunday, I felt four waves pass through my brain, each lasting approximately 15 minutes," Kirk wrote. "I cannot describe the feeling except to say that something profound was happening inside my skull. Those waves were causing my brain to swell and my symptoms worsened. The strokes affected the portions of my brain that regulate movement on my left side."

A day later, surgeons temporarily removed a 4-inch by 8-inch portion of Kirk's skull to alleviate brain swelling. It later was put back.

"I am told that I woke up on Monday morning and asked for my BlackBerry, although I have no recollection of that now," Kirk wrote

At the time of his stroke, doctors predicted Kirk would recover his full mental abilities. But the stroke on the right side of his brain affected his left arm and leg, his surgeon, Dr. Richard Fessler warned at the time.

Kirk has faced his recovery privately, but it has been evident for months that he is preparing to return to political life.

He has spoken with several members of the Illinois delegation, including U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin and Republican U.S. Rep. John Shimkus of downstate Collinsville.

He meets regularly with staff and has been working behind the scenes on an Iran sanctions bill, one of his hallmark issues. Colleagues from both sides of the aisle have worked to advance his legislation, from the elimination of the federal sugar program to the passage of the STOCK Act preventing insider trading to the nomination of federal justices.

Kirk, sitting in front of the camera for part of the video at his home in Highland Park, says in time he hopes "to climb the 45 steps my staff counted from the parking lot to the Senate front door."

Kirk says he is most indebted to his family -- "for standing by me during these past 3 months, holding my hand during the darkest hours."

He also writes of being "blessed" by his congressional family, "which has stood by me and my staff during this period. Sens. Dick Durbin, Joe Manchin, Scott Brown, Bob Corker, Mitch McConnell and others in the Senate and House have all gone out of their way to help us continue to work on behalf of the people of Illinois," Kirk said.

Kirk said he and his staff are working on a legislative package to help with stroke early detection and prevention programs.

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