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Article updated: 1/2/2013 11:57 AM

Kirk: Experimental therapy helped him relearn to walk

By Kerry Lester

Mark Kirk literally rose to this occasion.

A beaming Kirk emerged from a Willis Tower stairwell on Nov. 4 after climbing more than three dozen flights of stairs on his own.

The U.S. senator from Highland Park made the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's Skyrise charity climb with trained therapists by his side. Kirk lost much of the function in his left arm and leg after suffering an ischemic stroke on Jan. 21, 2012.

His journey from hospital bed to that stairwell was long and arduous. He had several brain surgeries and had to relearn to walk.

An experimental therapy program in which Kirk was trained "like an athlete" might have helped him recover more fully and quickly than he otherwise would have, according to trial researchers.

Kirk spent nine weeks over the summer participating as an outpatient in the program at the Rehabilitation Institute, led by Institute lead researcher T. George Hornby.

While the trial is ongoing and data has not yet been tabulated, Hornby said participants are walking better and at a faster pace than those with regular therapy.

"Patients early post-stroke should be improving," Hornby said. "The nervous system is adjusting to the new body, the new environment. They should be getting better at tasks. We're just wondering if we can tap into that."

In all, Kirk walked an average of 3,677 steps per day, a total of 14.79 miles over ground and on the treadmill, and up 145 flights of stairs as part of the program.

Weeks before the charity climb, Kirk appeared at the Institute and practiced by walking 18 flights of stairs with a therapist, who laughed that she was as winded as Kirk was.

But when he started, his left leg was a useless weight that Kirk likened to "a dead tuna that was stapled to my hip." He could barely walk a few steps on the treadmill, which he nicknamed the "dreadmill."

A visit to the Institute in early October showed patients in the trial wearing harnesses and hooked to the ceiling like human trolleys, relearning to walk -- and balance -- on their own as they stepped over a series of obstacles, mats and balance beams in a bright orange hallway.

Four floors above, another trial participant was practicing walking sideways on a treadmill, picking up both his good and bad leg as therapists threw sponges in his way.

"Falling was very much a part of the experience," said Kirk, who in May released a video of his therapy, saying he wanted to show constituents how grueling the sessions could be.

Some sessions were so physically demanding that Kirk became nauseated, once throwing up and barely missing therapist Mike Klonowski.

"He was a completely inspirational guy who would just not let me quit. Which was essential," Kirk said of Klonowski.

Hornby said the idea for the trial came from "well-vetted neurological studies" adapted to the needs of stroke and spinal-cord patients.

Among the components of time-tested recipes to recovery, Hornby said, are constant practice and repetition.

The best violinists in the world, Hornby noted, "have massive amounts of practice."

And not just practice -- intensity matters. Runners who train at higher speeds are ultimately in better shape than those who run the same distance at slower paces.

"The group that works harder always is in better shape," Hornby said.

In the study, researchers wanted to help stroke patients learn to better adjust their movements to account for real world variables like traffic stops and obstacles.

By pushing patients to complete difficult tasks at relatively high heart rates, using levels set by the American College of Sports Medicine for individuals with cardiovascular disease, "We're going to challenge them so much they're really struggling. That's how you learn a task," Hornby said.

Kirk, who turned 53 in September, was the first to enroll in the trial but not the first to participate, Hornby said. The senator was randomly slotted into the experimental arm of the trial, rather than into the control group of 18- to 75-year-old patients who got standard therapy for comparison.

Up to five times a week for eight weeks, patients take part in an hour of therapy. Of that hour, Hornby said, at least 40 minutes is walking time.

Kathy Pacholski of Chicago's South Side took part in the first phase of the trial. She began calling the exercise room for stroke patients at the Institute the "torture chamber," but said she believes she became much stronger as a result of the intensity of the training.

Kirk said he'll never forget the impact his therapists have had on his life.

"If you spend your life putting people back together," Kirk said, "there's an inherent goodness inside you that shines through. The people at the RIC came through like that."

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