A Survivor in the Senate
Stroke survivors do not always return to work. Even when they do, it’s safe to say that they are not welcomed back by the Vice President of the United States.
Stroke survivors do not always return to work. Even when they do, it’s safe to say that they are not welcomed back by the Vice President of the United States. Not so for Mark Kirk, the junior senator from Illinois.
photos courtesy of the Office of Senator Mark Kirk
In January 2012 Sen. Kirk had experienced dizziness and felt numbness in his left arm and leg on a Saturday morning and checked himself into the hospital near his home in Chicago. He was given anticoagulant therapy when imaging tests revealed a dissected carotid artery. When his vision blurred and his left side continued to tingle, he was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital, a primary stroke center, in case surgery was necessary. That was a good call as surgery was required when the dissected artery blocked the blood flow to his brain on January 27th. About a week later, he woke up in the intensive care unit following two surgeries, including a craniotomy, to relieve the swelling in his brain. “I remember thinking that someone was sharing a bed with me, not realizing that it was my own leg,” he said in an interview with Stroke Connection. He vaguely remembered a Super Bowl party the ICU staff had and the smell of the food they brought.
A few days later he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. There he dreamed that three angels visited him and asked him to go with them, but “I said no because I knew where I was, on the ninth floor of the RIC, and why I was there — to begin a long, difficult recovery from an ischemic stroke,” he recalled in an interview with the Washington Post.
That realization came before he had actually begun the hard work of rehab with a therapist he appreciatively calls a tyrant. At first he couldn’t even sit up in bed, his whole left side weak and unresponsive. His glass-half-empty attitude was on full display. He credits his therapy team’s relentless glass-half-full attitude and belief in him as pivotal in his recovery. He participated in an 11-week intensive gait rehabilitation trial using a treadmill and harness. “I struggled with the fact my brain was no longer communicating with the muscles in my left leg,” he said. “At one point, I was on the treadmill with Mike Klonowski, my physical therapist at RIC, next to me, and I realized that I had to use my hip to swing my leg forward. That was a breakthrough moment. That day I couldn’t walk enough.”
But that was only the beginning of an incredibly long, frustrating and exhausting process of learning to walk again. He spent hours on the treadmill, which he calls “that infernal machine.” But the effort paid off, and in November 2012, he challenged himself to climb 37 flights of stairs at the Willis Tower, the tallest building in Chicago, with the help of his physical therapists. That was good practice — two months later, on January 3, 2013, not quite a year after his stroke, he climbed the steps at the Capitol to the cheers of the other senators and vice president. “That was one of the best days of my life,” he said. “My colleagues who watched me climb those steps that day told me it was the first bipartisan moment that had happened in a while — now that is something to cheer for, and I owe it to the hard work of my dedicated rehabilitation therapists.”
As with most stroke survivors, returning to work was an enormous accomplishment, but that was not the end of the story. “My left arm and leg are not what they used to be. My left leg bears weight so I can walk, but I often use a cane or wheelchair to get around,” he said. He continues to do as much therapy as he can fit into his schedule. “I try to go to Walter Reed Memorial Hospital once a week.”
On November 3, 2013 he returned to Willis Tower to participate again in the stair-climbing event, which is a fundraiser for RIC. The second time he climbed 41 floors by himself, admitting that it was a bit harder without the help of his therapists. He also used the occasion to draw attention to what he calls his “stroke agenda.”
“I am focused on how we can get people who have suffered stroke to return to work, and how we can give them a chance to recover their lives and come all the way back,” he said. Since returning to the Senate, he has introduced several pieces of legislation to do just that. He supports more research into rehabilitation science at the National Institutes of Health and has drafted language to secure funding for that. “I have introduced legislation that would redefine and modernize rehabilitation. Last year I introduced another bill that would evaluate a national need for rehabilitation innovation centers. In addition, I am working with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services to ensure that stroke severity is included in hospital outcome measures.”
“I am no longer the glass-half-empty guy.Every day is an opportunity,and I am grateful to be alive,grateful to be here.”
Beyond altering his legislative focus, the stroke changed him. “My stroke was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to overcome, and the biggest lesson in life I have ever learned by a country mile,” he said. “I am no longer the glass-half-empty guy. Every day is an opportunity, and I am grateful to be alive, grateful to be here.”
Sen. Kirk got some sound advice from Jason Cunningham, a 9-year-old stroke survivor. “He said, ‘Do not give up on yourself. All the hard work is worth it.’ His words encouraged me to work harder at my recovery.”
Early in his recovery, walking was challenging, but he used the prospect of returning to work in the Senate as his inspiration. He offered this advice to our readers: “Find what motivates you and build off of that. For me, it is making my life matter by doing work that matters to others. And caregivers, remember a stroke is not the end of the world — your loved one will come back.”
Sen. Kirk climbs the Capitol steps for the first time after his stroke with the assistance of Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Joe Manchin, and Sen. Dick Durbin (L to R)