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updated: 1/10/2013 4:01 PM

Senator Kirk speaks for the first time about his stroke

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  • U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says relearning to walk was a frustrating, exhausting process that came with a breakthrough moment.

       U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says relearning to walk was a frustrating, exhausting process that came with a breakthrough moment.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk learned to walk again after a stroke through hours of physical therapy. "Falling was very much a part of the experience," he said.

       U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk learned to walk again after a stroke through hours of physical therapy. "Falling was very much a part of the experience," he said.
    Bill Zars | Staff Photographer

  • Video: Kirk walking trial

  • Video: Kirk's progress in August

  • Kirk politcal timeline

    Graphic: Kirk politcal timeline

 
 

For Mark Kirk, there was no white light, no tunnel.

What Illinois' junior U.S. senator experienced was three angels standing at the foot of his bed.

"You want to come with us?" Kirk was asked.

"No," he told them. "I'll hold off."

The Highland Park Republican, who plans to return to the Senate when Congress convenes Thursday, recounted the story in his first in-depth interview since he suffered a massive stroke nearly a year ago.

Awakening from what he says might have been a dream, a side effect of medication or a near-death experience, Kirk found himself lying in a hospital bed in Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Intensive Care Unit, hooked up to monitors and tubes.

He had no way of immediately knowing what had transpired in the days after he suffered an ischemic stroke on Jan. 21, 2012; that doctors had put him in a coma and performed several surgeries, temporarily removing a 4-by-8 inch portion of skull to allow his brain to swell and heal.

What Kirk did know was how close he had been to death.

"A thing goes off in your head that this is the end," he remembered.

Kirk's life and outlook would be dramatically changed, the stroke serving as a defining moment that he said deepened his faith and altered his sense of purpose.

Sitting at the dining room table of his suburban townhouse, his left arm slack, Kirk gestures emphatically with his right hand as he says the experience made him resolve "to never, ever give up."

He is determined "to just keep going, even when things feel like we're at the end here. Which is what the ICU was like for me."

This Thursday, Jan. 3, Kirk plans to climb the 45 steps of the U.S. Capitol without the aid of a handrail.

The goal-driven 53-year-old visualized those steps as a source of inspiration as he toiled through the physical therapy sessions at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago that left him exhausted, sore and, at times, nauseated.

"I kept imagining going back to work," Kirk said, "and the irreducible physical amount of effort I had to put in."

Kirk has prepared for his return to the Senate with the intensity and focus he has been known for during his 28-year political career, which he began as a staffer in former 10th District Congressman John Porter's office, where he capped off long days on Capitol Hill by attending Georgetown Law School at night.

He now has his daily commute to the Senate floor plotted down to the last detail.

"Leave the elevator, turn right, walk into the chamber, up three stairs," Kirk said. "That area is open to the public and there are lots of reporters there and flip phones. I figured I'm going to have to get this right."

Kirk, who marked the first year after his 2010 election to the Senate with an exhausting travel schedule -- trips to Afghanistan, the Horn of Africa and Poland, among others -- will see his routine altered, his pace slowed.

Kirk's stroke -- caused by a blocked artery -- occurred on the right side of his brain, which affects movement on his left side.

Dr. Richard Fessler, who operated on Kirk, said the senator was fortunate the stroke did not occur on the left side, which deals with cognitive abilities to speak, understand and think.

Kirk's recovery, Fessler said in a statement in late December, was "remarkable and exceeds my expectations."

"He remains the core person that he was before the stroke. His thought process is normal, and his mental state remains sharp. As I have said from the beginning, when he returns to the Senate he will be fully capable of performing his official duties," Fessler wrote.

Today, Kirk said, all of the blood clots in his body are gone, including one in his left leg that could have triggered another stroke or pulmonary embolism. He attributes much of his recovery to his medical team's experience and skill.

"The only reason I'm doing so well (is) this wasn't the first rodeo for my doctors and nurses," Kirk said. "The story of my recovery was the story of medical professionals who didn't complicate problems."

Gone, though, is his rapid-fire speech, his punctuation of key points with an energetic bounce on the balls of his feet.

He now considers himself a "disabled American."

Kirk now speaks clearly, but more softly, slowly and deliberately. His left side has suffered partial paralysis, causing him to use a four-pronged cane. He has regained little use of his left arm, and is blind in one quadrant of his left eye.

For efficiency, he will be pushed in a wheelchair around the Capitol complex.

Kirk does not pretend that life is the same. But he is not angry.

"I would say that I definitely became much more religious," Kirk said. "They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and this stroke put me into a very deep foxhole. Yet, that feeling of faith sustained me, so I have no feelings of anger or regret."

A Bible passage from the book of Matthew in which Jesus gives the Sermon on the Mount serves as a daily source of reflection, reminding Kirk to place his trust in a higher power.

He said he regards the stroke as his "old friend" -- a sort of blessing that allowed him to meet other stroke victims he otherwise never would have known.

He speaks of Maggie, a 19-year-old "fashionista" with a warm personality, and Terry, a suburban pastor, with whom he bonded during therapy sessions.

His muscles atrophied after spending weeks in a hospital bed, Kirk relearned to walk in a frustrating, exhausting process that came with a breakthrough moment. "I figured a way to think about it," he said of walking again. "My left leg was like a dead tuna that was stapled to my hip. I had to use my hip to swing forward. The day that I figured it out, I couldn't stop walking."

Therapists told him that left leg eventually would become weight bearing, a prediction that came true, though he didn't initially believe it.

Practicing walking on the treadmill on the ninth floor of the Rehabilitation Institute building, Kirk would look out the window, down to the Superior Street entrance.

"I imagined myself walking to the building and to the entrance that I would see," Kirk said. "That thought would sustain me ... as long as possible."

In late December, Kirk left the townhouse where he lived largely in solitude for six months, with only the daily presence of a caregiver and an aggressive black cat, Cleopatra, to keep him company.

Just a day after his arrival in Washington, D.C., Kirk appeared at a holiday party at his Hart Senate office, making the long walk down the fifth floor hallway with the help of his cane.

So begins a new chapter for the senator, who will rely on the help of staffers as he resumes his duties.

In many ways, Washington has changed little since Kirk's departure a year ago. He remains in the Senate minority in a chamber beleaguered by gridlock.

From the outside, Illinoisans he represents were initially given few details about his recovery, with Kirk's staff choosing to communicate largely through prepared statements. But a review of Kirk's last 12 months shows that he gradually increased his workload as he became more and more eager to return to the Senate and to his role as the Illinois GOP's top office holder.

Those efforts were evident in the passage of Iran sanctions legislation, one of his hallmark issues, and in videos he released on the state's credit downgrade and in support of campaigns of vulnerable Republicans.

Meanwhile, the 100-member Senate, while politically divided, nonetheless demonstrated willingness and camaraderie in taking up Kirk's causes as he recovered at home, unable to cast votes.

Kirk began holding videoconferences with staffers over comprehensive Iran sanctions while he was still an inpatient at the Rehabilitation Institute, giving them direction between rehab sessions and speaking by phone with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On the Senate floor, New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez carried Kirk's ideas forward.

Along with Menendez, Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin, Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin -- all Democrats -- and others advanced a number of Kirk's priorities.

Durbin, a senator since 1997, watched South Dakota Democratic Sen. Tim Johnson resume his duties in 2008 after a stroke a year before.

"I saw after (Johnson) arrived a dramatic improvement in his communication skills over time," Durbin said. "My feeling is that Mark is going to come back and he's going to continue to progress. I know he's going to work on it."

Kirk said he spent much of rehab asking himself, "What would Tim Johnson do?" Now, his challenge is gauging how fatigue will affect his daily schedule.

Living in a new, wheelchair accessible apartment on Capitol Hill, he will get back to Illinois "as much as possible" and still considers Highland Park his primary residence. While in Washington, he will attend therapy three days a week.

Kirk's return will present some new challenges for his close-knit group of aides as they adjust to the senator's new physical limitations and energy levels. But this is not something Kirk wishes to hide.

This is not the era of Franklin Roosevelt, who, out of political necessity, hid the fact that polio had left him unable to walk.

"My hope was my recovery would be easily understood and very public and very transparent. Most times the public figures cover up the big problem they have," Kirk said.

He calls the stroke "the hardest thing I've ever overcome and the biggest lesson in life I have ever learned by a country mile."

On Thursday, all eyes will be on Kirk as he climbs the Capitol steps at 11:30 a.m.

He won't be alone.

"I was talking to Mark the other day, and he said, 'I want you with me to come up the steps,'" Durbin said.

Illinois' senior Democratic senator didn't waste a moment in his reply.

"I said, 'There's going to be a big crowd, and you can bet I'm going to be in it.'"

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