What we can learn from Kirk’s stroke

Doctors had good news Tuesday for friends, family and constituents of Sen. Mark Kirk, saying he is able to talk and is breathing on his own after suffering a stroke on the right side of his brain.

“He is doing very well. Better than I expected at this point,” said Dr. Richard Fessler at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago.

That’s a relief and we certainly wish Illinois’ junior senator from Highland Park a speedy recovery. But we also recognize, as his doctors said Monday, that Kirk’s prognosis is mixed — he is expected to recover mentally but may not regain full use of his left arm and leg. On Tuesday his speech was slightly slurred because of some facial paralysis and doctors reported he was using his left side very little. Kirk suffered an ischemic stroke, which occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to a portion of the brain.

The fact that he is young — just 52 — and in good shape before the stroke certainly should help in his recovery. But it also is scary for many to learn that having a stroke is becoming more and more common for younger people — even those under the age of 45.

“We see people in their 30s and 40s come in with strokes now,” Dr. Franklin Marden, intervention neuroradiologist at Alexian Brothers Health System told the Daily Herald’s Jamie Sotonoff. “A lot of is lifestyle choices.”

It remains unclear why Kirk, a seemingly healthy man, suffered a stroke. His doctors do not trace it to stress or diet, saying he works out regularly and eats well.

But we all would do well to heed warning signs and to make decisions to lessen the chances of a debilitating stroke.

The American Stroke Association offers these tips: Get your blood pressure checked at least twice a year, more if there is a family history; quit smoking; keep your cholesterol in check; cut back on alcohol; and work out. Simple really. But not always easy to follow through, even though it could save your life.

Sen. Kirk has a long road ahead. At least two weeks with a portion of his skull removed so his brain can be allowed to swell and heal; intensive care for at least five days; more time in a step-down unit of the hospital; and then an unknown amount of time at a rehabilitation center.

His family and friends are counting on the “fighter in him” to overcome any obstacles in his way back to the U.S. Capitol and to his work. We hope he’ll be able to do just that, as Sen. Tim Johnson of South Dakota did after suffering a stroke in 2006.

And in the meantime, we hope others will benefit from what we can learn from Kirk’s travails.

“Frankly, if there is anything good that comes of a situation like this, it’s a reminder that this is not a problem for old people. This is a problem for all of us,” said American Stroke Association spokesman Mark Peysakhovich.

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