Kirk returns to Capitol after stroke: 'Let's go to work'

WASHINGTON — One. Two. Three.

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk could be seen methodically counting to himself as he made his way up the U.S. Capitol steps for the first time since he suffered a massive stroke nearly a year ago.

In roughly 10 minutes, he had climbed all 45 steps — an emotional and triumphant return to the upper chamber, and the completion of a goal he had set for himself while he was an inpatient at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“I kept imagining going back to work,” Kirk told the Daily Herald in his first in-depth interview since the stroke, “and the irreducible physical amount of effort I had to put in.”

Kirk, a Republican from Highland Park, was flanked by two Democrats as he made the Thursday morning climb — Vice President Joe Biden and West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, a close friend with whom Kirk established a weekly Washington lunching tradition. Illinois' senior senator, Democrat Dick Durbin, stood to Biden's right.

If Kirk was nervous, it didn't show. He smiled and waved to the crowd that had gathered to watch, some waiting nearly an hour in the cold January air.

“Let's go to work, you guys!” Kirk said, after embracing Biden, Manchin and Durbin.

“Welcome back, Mac!” said Biden, a 23-year senator who missed seven months himself due to an aneurysm and pulmonary embolism in 1988.

Nearly 60 members of the Senate and a majority of the Illinois delegation lined up to cheer Kirk's return, with Collinsville Republican U.S. Rep. John Shimkus giving the group directions.

The suburbs' newest members of the House — Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Hoffman Estates, Brad Schneider of Deerfield and Bill Foster of Naperville — stood toward the base of the stairs, with House GOP Chief Deputy Whip Peter Roskam of Wheaton several steps above. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry stood near the top, his face fixed in a smile.

In the first few minutes, all was quiet as Kirk swung his right leg forward, then his left, using a four-pronged cane for balance. At times, he swayed slightly to the left side, but Biden helped guide Kirk back to his right. Manchin's right arm was wrapped protectively around his friend's back.

The higher Kirk climbed, the louder the applause from his colleagues grew.

“You're not taking a break, Navy!” one member shouted as Kirk, a Naval Reserve officer, paused briefly.

Passing through the Capitol's second-floor hallway, Biden and Manchin still by his side, Kirk entered the Senate chamber.

Moments after the gavel struck, Senate Chaplain Barry Black offered a prayer, welcoming Kirk back by name.

“Your conquering spirit ... has brought our beloved Senator Kirk to these hallowed halls,” Black prayed.

Kirk remained on the floor of the upper chamber for 45 minutes, sitting in the back right row in the desk that was uninhabited for 11 months and three weeks as he recovered at home in Highland Park, unable to cast votes.

Other senators from both sides of the aisle streamed past his desk, exchanging hugs, high-fives and occasionally, fist bumps.

As new senators were sworn in by Biden, Kirk sat quietly, clapping his right hand on top of his left leg to congratulate his new colleagues. He has regained little use of his left arm.

Kirk's new routine will be markedly different from the fast-paced, travel-filled first year of his Senate term. He said his challenge will be gauging how fatigue will affect his daily schedule.

But he is determined to “never, ever give up,” a message he wants other stroke victims to take to heart.

“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 in the Daily Herald interview.

His doctors, who flew from Chicago to hold a news conference, say they are optimistic that Kirk's energy will increase over time.

“Improved endurance is one of the great things we're seeing (with Kirk),” said Dr. Elliot Roth, medical director at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. It's “partially dependent on how hard he pushes (himself),” he said.

Kirk's primary physical therapist at the Rehabilitation Institute, Mike Klonowski, saw Kirk push himself so hard during physical therapy sessions that at times the senator became nauseated.

Klonowski was at Kirk's side during a Willis Tower charity stair climb in November as the senator climbed 37 flights before emerging from a stairwell to cheers.

Thursday, Klonowski saw things from a different vantage point, a few yards from the base of the Senate steps.

“It was really something to see him go up those steps,” he recalled, his eyes shining with tears.

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Sen. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, waves as he walks up the Capitol steps to mark his return to Congress. Members of Congress line the steps and Kirk is accompanied by Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, to his right, and Vice President Joe Biden, on his left. Associated Press
U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, right, helped by Senate Sergeant at Arms and Doorkeeper Terrance Gainer, walks on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., before climbing the steps to the Senate. Applauding in the foreground, from left, are Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin of Illinois, Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Vice President Joe Biden. Associated Press
Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky gives a thumbs-up as Sen. Mark Kirk, of Highland Park, second from right, walks up the steps to the Senate door of the Capitol building. Kirk is accompanied by Vice President Joe Biden, right, and Sen. Joe Manchin. Associated Press
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