Sen. Kirk alert, asks for Blackberry

Two days after undergoing brain surgery for a stroke, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is alert and breathing on his own, doctors say.

In fact, he asked for his Blackberry back, Dr. Richard Fessler told reporters at a news conference at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, where Kirk underwent surgery and is beginning his initial recovery. Doctors, however, did not grant that wish.

“I have good news to report today,” Fessler said. “He is doing very well. Better than I expected at this point.”

Yet, Fessler said, Kirk's speech is slightly slurred due to some facial paralysis, and he is “using his left side very little.” Kirk is right-handed.

Kirk, a 52-year-old Highland Park Republican, was on his way to Chicago for a political event Saturday when he diverted his driver to Lake Forest Hospital because he had a headache and dizziness. He later was transferred to Northwestern Memorial.

Kirk “is able to talk, is breathing on his own,” Fessler said. “He is answering questions appropriately and very quickly.”

While Kirk has been told — by Fessler directly — that he had a stroke, doctors have not yet gone into detail with him about the surgery Sunday, which removed a 4- by 8-inch section of his skull because of brain swelling, or about the long road of recovery that lies ahead. Nor has the senator asked, Fessler said.

“It's too early for us to go through that with him,” Fessler said. “He's still fighting to become healthy again.”

Yet, Fessler said, “I'm sure he realizes what's going on. I don't know the status of his spirits right now.”

Doctors are hopeful Kirk will recover full mental ability, but say the chances he'll recover full use of his left arm and leg are “not great.”

Kirk is expected to spend at least two weeks with a portion of his skull removed, so his brain can be allowed to swell and heal.

That piece of skull, Fessler said, is now deep frozen and, once the brain swelling goes down, can be put back with a “simple procedure” using titanium plates and screws to hold the bone in place.

Fessler said Kirk will remain in intensive care for at least the next five days, then is likely to be transferred to another floor where he will be watched as he recovers, before moving to a rehabilitation center for more long-term treatment and care.

In the meantime, as the senator recovers, his office will continue to function as normally as possible, staffers say.

“As Sen. Kirk begins his recovery, his office will remain open to constituents. The staff will continue to provide the same level of service and dedication to the residents of Illinois as they have for the last year,” an office statement read.

Yet, only Kirk himself is able to cast votes. His absence means one less vote for Republicans, bringing their total in the Senate down to 47.

Kirk's colleagues have already indicated how profoundly they feel his absence. West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin — a Democrat who lunches with Kirk each Thursday — said he and Kirk had planned to sit together to watch the State of the Union address Tuesday night. After learning of Kirk's stroke, Manchin moved to keep the seat empty to honor Kirk.

Fessler said there's no reason to believe a high-stress lifestyle might have contributed to Kirk's stroke. Known as a workhorse on Capitol Hill, Kirk also is an officer in the U.S. Naval Reserves and works a weekend a month at the Pentagon.

“He works out regularly, he eats a good diet,” Fessler said. “But I don't think this event had anything to do with stress or his diet. It was just one of those unfortunate disasters that happen to people sometimes.”

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