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)

Stroke Connection. Get the app for free.


- Advertisement -

This link is provided for convenience only and is not an endorsement or recommendation of either the linked-to entity or any product or service.

AD. Amramp Making Life Accessible. 20 years. Be accessible to everyone. Protect your clients & their caregivers from slip and fall accidents. 888-715-7599. Click here for more info.

AD: American Stroke Association-American Heart Association logo. Did you know that about 1 in 4 stroke survivors have a second stroke? Learn more.


Ad: American Heart Association logo. American Diabetes Associaiton logo. Know diabetes by heart logo. Living with diabetes? Inspire others. Submit story button.


AD. American Heart Association logo. Know your blood pressure numbers. And what they mean. Gain Control.  Learn more.


Ad: American Heart Association Support Network. Facing recovery after a stroke or heart disease diagnosis can be overwhelming. You are not alone. Our community is here for you. Join us today. heart.org/SupportNetwork.


Edit ModuleShow Tags

Stroke Rehabilitation

Making the Best Decisions at Discharge After Stroke

The type of rehabilitation and support systems a survivor receives at discharge can strongly influence health outcomes and recovery. In this, the first part of a two-part series on stroke rehab, we offer guidance for the decision-making process required when it’s time to leave the hospital.

What to Expect from Outpatient Rehab

After stroke, about two-thirds of survivors receive some type of rehabilitation. Outpatient therapy may consist of Several types of therapy. Whether a patient is referred to inpatient or outpatient therapy depends on the level of medical care required.

What to Expect in Stroke Rehab

Following a stroke, about two-thirds of survivors receive some type rehabilitation. In this second of our two-part series, we want to alleviate some of the mystery, fear and anxiety around the inpatient rehab part of the stroke recovery journey.
Edit ModuleShow Tags Edit ModuleShow Tags

AHA-ASA Resources

The Support Network

When faced with challenges recovering from heart disease or stroke, it’s important to have emotional support. That is why we created a network to connect patients and loved ones with others during their journey.

Caregiver Guide to Stroke

The Caregiver Guide to Stroke is meant to help caregivers better navigate the recovery process and the financial and social implications of a stroke.

Stroke Support Group Finder

To find a group near you, simply enter your ZIP code and a mile radius. If your initial search does not pull up any groups, try

Tips for Daily Living Library

This volunteer-powered library gathers tips and ideas from stroke survivors, caregivers and healthcare professionals all over the country who’ve created or discovered adaptive and often innovative ways to get things done!

Stroke Family Warmline

The Warmline connects stroke survivors and their families with an ASA team member who can provide support, helpful information or just a listening ear.

Let's Talk About Stroke Patient Information Sheets

Let's Talk About Stroke is a series of downloadable patient information sheets, created by the American Stroke Association, that presents information in a question-and-answer format that's brief, easy to follow and easy to read.

Request Free Stroke Information Packets

Fill out this online form to request free information about a variety of post-stroke topics.
Edit ModuleShow Tags

Stroke & Parts of the Brain

When Stroke Affects the Occipital Lobe

Our occipital lobe, the smallest of the four lobes of the cerebral cortex, controls how we visually interpret our world.

When Stroke Affects the Cerebellum

The cerebellum contains 80 percent of our neurons. Its job seems to be to make things better. We talked with neuroscientist Jeremy Schmahmann about how stroke affects the “little brain.”

When Stroke Affects the Parietal Lobe

The parietal lobe helps us make sense of sensory information, like where our bodies and body parts are in space, our sense of touch, and the part of our vision that deals with the location of objects.

When Stroke Affects the Frontal Lobe

Of the four lobes that make up the cerebral cortex, the frontal lobe is the largest. It plays a huge role in many of the functions that make us human — memory, language, movement, judgment, abstract thinking.

When Stroke Affects the Temporal Lobe

The temporal lobe has several functions, mainly involved with memory, perception and language.

When Stroke Affects the Brain Stem

The brain stem serves as a bridge in the nervous system. It sits at the top of the spinal column in the center of the brain. When a stroke happens there, it can cause a few different deficits and, in the most severe cases, can lead to locked-in syndrome.

When Stroke Affects the Thalamus

The thalamus can be thought of as a "relay station," receiving signals from the brain’s outer regions (cerebral cortex), interpreting them, then sending them to other areas of the brain to complete their job.
Edit ModuleShow Tags


Stroke Notes

Stroke-related news you can use about new scientific findings, public policy, programs and resources.

Readers Room

Articles, poems and art submitted by stroke survivors and their loved ones.

Life Is Why

Everyone has a reason to live a longer, healthier life. These stroke survivors, caregivers and others share their 'whys'. We'd love for you to share yours, too!

Everyday Survival

Practical tips and advice for day-to day living after stroke.

Life At The Curb

A unique perspective on survival by comedian and stroke survivor John Kawie.

Simple Cooking

Cooking at home can be a daunting task, but a rewarding one for your diet and lifestyle (and your wallet). Making small changes in your diet is important to your heart health. Here are simple, healthy and affordable recipes and cooking tips.

Helping Others Understand

Stroke affects people differently and many of the effects of stroke can be complicated. Helping friends and family understand how a stroke is affecting a survivor can help everyone involved.

Support Showcase

Our new department highlighting the good work being done by stroke support groups from around the nation. If you are part of a successful support group we should consider featuring, let us know!