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Mark Kirk returns to Senate after recovering from stroke

Published: Friday, Jan. 4, 2013 9:30 a.m. CST

(MCT) — WASHINGTON — Sen. Mark Kirk’s halting, 18-minute climb up the Capitol steps on Thursday came nearly a year after a major stroke left him so incapacitated that he was in critical condition for 10 to 15 days and had difficulty keeping his balance while sitting up.

Those details about Kirk’s illness were among many revealed by the senator’s medical team, which met with reporters after his much-heralded return to the Senate.

“It’s a great day for the senator, because he has done so well,” said his brain surgeon, Dr. Richard Fessler of Northwestern Memorial Hospital. “It’s a great day for the United States, because he is a phenomenal senator from Illinois. And I think it’s a great day for medicine to be able to showcase how well we can do for our patients, with the miracles we can perform.”

Fessler was among hundreds of people on hand — including dozens of lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats — to welcome back Kirk, R-Ill.

Kirk’s ischemic stroke, caused by a blood clot in his right carotid artery, left the lawmaker’s cognitive functions intact, Fessler said. The senator had 10 to 11 months of intensive therapy — likened to boot camp — after he was stricken.

Fessler said Kirk has normal use of his right hand and arm but not his left arm. His left leg is strong near his hip and weaker at his foot, so he wears a leg brace. Kirk’s speech, while hesitant, is “vastly improved ... and will continue to improve,” the surgeon said.

Other medical professionals, while raving about Kirk’s progress, said his rehabilitation would be a lifelong process with additional progress, sometimes spotty, ahead.

Kirk was greeted by several Illinoisans, including Sen. Dick Durbin, the senior senator from Illinois, and Terry Gainer, the Senate sergeant-at-arms. Also in attendance were former Rep. Bob Dold, R-Ill., who had Kirk’s old House seat for two years and left office Thursday, and incoming Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., a double amputee from the Iraq war who called it a “fantastic day” for people with disabilities and for the nation.

They joined hundreds of other well-wishers who endured temperatures in the 30s while applauding Kirk.

Vice President Joe Biden, addressing Kirk as he began the climb, remarked: “You got all day, pal. It took me seven months to make these steps.” The vice president in 1988 was absent from the Senate for months because of surgeries for brain aneurysms.

The vice president grasped Kirk’s right upper arm, and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., on the left, kept his hand around Kirk’s waist, to assist and guide him on the way up.

Kirk paused at times, giving a hearty wave or a thumbs-up to the crowd. He got a hug and kiss from Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.

“Bravo,” he was cheered when he alighted the last step, met by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.

“Nice to see you guys,” Kirk told reporters when he entered Capitol en route to the Senate chamber. When a reporter asked him what it was like to be back, he had two words: “Feels great.”

Kirk took his regular desk on the Senate floor and, while seated, enthusiastically greeted colleagues. McConnell, addressing the chamber, where new senators were sworn in Thursday, had a special welcome for the first-term senator. “The fact that Mark is here today says a lot about his tenacity, his dedication and his commitment to the people of Illinois,” McConnell said.

Reid, likewise, paid tribute to Kirk from the Senate floor, saying everyone was grateful for his recovery and proud. “Today, on the East Front of the Capitol, to see him walk up those steps ... said it all.”

Durbin issued a statement, saying: “It’s a historic comeback for a senator who has worked hard to come back and show that those who have suffered strokes can survive and prosper and return to work. It’s also evidence that a lot of us, regardless of party affiliation, can come together to show the human side of politics.”

Kirk, from Highland Park, is up for re-election in 2016. He will continue to undergo rehabilitation in Washington, where he has new, handicapped-accessible living quarters on Capitol Hill, said spokesman Lance Trover.

Fessler, the neurosurgeon, said in an interview that he had three “very simple jobs” after Kirk was stricken: to keep him alive, to prevent additional damage to his brain after the stroke and to prevent any major complications during his hospitalization.

In Kirk’s first surgery, a section of his skull was removed to accommodate brain swelling. Soon thereafter Kirk underwent a second operation to remove more of his skull as well as dead brain tissue. In a third surgery, the removed portion of his skull was replaced.

Fessler, looking back, said that if six more hours had passed before he and others began the second procedure, Kirk “might have experienced a much worse outcome” than he did.

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(Tribune reporter Patrick Svitek contributed.)

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