Sen. Kirk climbs 37 flights of stairs in Willis Tower Sunday

A smiling U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk crossed the threshold of the Willis Tower Skydeck Sunday making an impressive stair climb less than a year after suffering a serious stroke.

With a brace on his left leg and little use of his left arm, the Highland Park Republican climbed 37 flights from the 66th floor to the 103rd during the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's fourth annual urban climb, Skyrise Chicago.

Kirk joined 2,700 other climbers for the institute's fundraiser, helping the rehab hospital raise $1 million for research.

“It was great,” Kirk said, adding that there were a lot more stairs in the iconic skyscraper than the 45 he'll have to climb to get to the senate floor in Washington, D.C.

The climb was the culmination of training Kirk began several months ago during inpatient rehabilitation at the institute, according to Mike Klonowski, an RIC physical therapist who worked with Kirk at the time. Klonowski said when Kirk started climbing stairs successfully during rehab, Skyrise Chicago became a goal toward which to work.

“He's a very driven individual and we just needed to set the stage for him,” Klonowski said.

Kirk suffered the stroke Jan. 21, and has since undergone a series of surgeries and months of physical therapy. He still has yet to travel to the Capitol floor for votes, but has been working behind the scenes from home, where he continues outpatient therapy.

Klonowski, who climbed with Kirk Sunday, said the senator was holding the stairway railing with his right hand and climbing without extra help. The event was Kirk's first public appearance since January besides a series of videos released by his office, one most recently of him endorsing Judy Biggert for Congress.

The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago has been named the top rehabilitation hospital in the United States by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1991. RIC's newest unit opened in January, giving Kirk the chance to participate in a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation model.

Kara Kozub O'Dell worked with Kirk while he was recovering in inpatient therapy, where she said the senator had access to the best clinical and scientific minds around.

“At RIC we are marrying therapy care and research in an effort to provide people with world-class care that isn't available from anyone else,” Kozub O'Dell said.

Therapists and scientists work side by side in the new unit to innovate care techniques in real time. Kirk's ability to climb stairs Sunday was proof of the program's success, Kozub O'Dell said.

Kirk wasn't the only stroke victim climbing stairs at Willis Tower Sunday. Several made it to the Skydeck with tears in their eyes for the accomplishment. People who suffered paralysis and were unable to walk hand-pedaled the equivalent of the 2,109 steps from the bottom to the top, still participating in the fundraiser. Then there were the elite racers who travel the world looking for new stairs to climb — the fastest of this group finished in barely more than 13 minutes.

The tallest urban climb in the world also made history with Zac Vawter, a 31-year-old Seattle native who climbed to the 103rd floor with a bionic leg that functioned purely at the direction of his thoughts.

The stair climb was a test run for the leg, which is still being tweaked and probably won't be available commercially for another decade, according to Grayslake resident Tom Idstein, who leads the team of electrical engineers that designed part of the leg.

Sen. Kirk joins the campaign trail via video

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