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Sen. Mark Kirk’s message to stroke victims: ‘Don’t give up’

Updated: February 4, 2013 2:47PM



WASHINGTON, D.C. — The left side of his face is stiff.

His speech is occasionally halting, as though his thoughts are racing ahead of his words.

But it’s clear that Sen. Mark Kirk’s mind remains sharp.

One year after he suffered a major stroke, the North Shore Republican appeared on the edge of his emotions at one point Wednesday, telling the Chicago Sun-Times that he hopes he will touch others when he climbs the steps of the Capitol on Thursday, particularly fellow stroke victims.

“The problem is not whether this stroke is completely debilitating. What I want to say is, be an example to my fellow stroke patients. Hopefully, their family will say: ‘Dad, don’t give up, Sen. Kirk, after all, is climbing the steps of the Capitol after rehab,’ ” he said. “One of the really nice things we have that God grants us, is that rehab does work. A stroke is not the end of the world, you will come back.”

Kirk is coming back on Thursday. And he’s ready to work.

He spoke with the Sun-Times in a sit-down interview in the U.S. Capitol one day before he plans his dramatic climb up the Capitol steps. Kirk, who had once proposed an assault weapons ban when he was a congressman, said he would again support that same ban. He offered a new perspective on the Illinois Medicaid program and what it offers to those with low incomes even as sources close to Kirk say his medical situation has affecte his personal savings and retirement accounts.

During the interview, Kirk briefly appeared to grow emotional when asked what he wanted to tell the people of Illinois.

“I would just say thank you for the honor of representing you,” Kirk said. “You now have a senator who is totally focused on those who have gone through stroke and how we can recover their lives and make sure they have the chance to come all the way back.”

Kirk, who is just 53, had to teach himself how to walk again. Among those walking up the Capitol steps with him Thursday will be Dick Durbin, his friend and fellow U.S. senator from Illinois.

“Dick Durbin has always taken the high road with regard to any comment about my stroke,” Kirk said.

Even though he’s in a different party, Durbin, a Democrat, also helped push through legislation on Kirk’s behalf.

“He’s earned a friend for life because of that,” Kirk said.

Returning to the Capitol is a culmination of a dream he has had since he was hospitalized a year ago after the stroke, Kirk said. Asked if, back then, he would have thought he would be back here, he plainly said, “No.”

He later explained that he had blacked out. He then calmly detailed the great lengths doctors went through to relieve swelling in his brain.

“They take the top of your head off and made room inside the skull cavity so my brain could swell from the injury from the stroke,” he said.

There was a time when he said he didn’t think he’d make it, Kirk said, hesitating.

“You know, when I was in the ICU, there’s I think a little program that’s buried inside each human where you kind of know you’re close to the end. . . . There was this sense I had that time is coming.”

Kirk credits his recovery to his medical team — which will address the media Thursday after Kirk’s walk up the steps.

Going through the health-care roller coaster gave him a different perspective on health care — but not enough that he would have endorsed the Affordable Care Act. He does plan to take a closer look at funding of the Illinois Medicaid program for those with have no income who suffer a stroke, he said. In general, a person on Medicaid in Illinois would be allowed 11 rehab visits, he said.

“Had I been limited to that, I would have had no chance to recover like I did,” Kirk said. “So unlike before suffering the stroke, I’m much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face.”

Kirk has the same federal health-care coverage available to other federal employees. He has incurred major out-of-pocket expenses, which have affected his savings and retirement, sources familiar with Kirk’s situation said.

It was last January when Kirk was initially hospitalized after a bout of dizziness. He has since endured aggressive rehabilitation, including considerable time on the treadmill, which he calls “the dreadmill.” He still suffers from paralysis on the left side of his body, and he plans to get around some of the time by wheelchair when necessary.

Sitting in a recording studio in the Capitol, Kirk clearly showed that he is mentally sharp. He’s learning Mandarin through Rosetta Stone and also took up Polish. He spoke some Polish with pretty precise pronunciation.

Physically, he revealed more symptoms; his left arm lay limp at his side. He wore a brace on his left leg. As the interview wore on — his last one of the day — it appeared more laborious for him to speak. He took deep breaths and spoke softly.

Kirk nodded when asked if, without the use of his left arm, he had to learn how to button his shirts again and whether it was more work to do simple tasks such as put on his clothes.

Still, when he appeared tired out, Kirk would pep up, offering a nugget on a political topic, including what’s sure to be a contentious Republican primary for governor in Illinois.

“I won’t be making an endorsement in a partisan primary,” he said.

Kirk said he would have voted “no” in the deal that ultimately averted the “fiscal cliff” late Tuesday — that would have put him in the minority of senators who voted against the compromise.

“For me, I will say the thing is that I miss most, is to apply what I’ve learned to be more compassionate and to break the partisan rancor that is so evident lately,” Kirk said of the political wrangling of late.

As for the walk up the Capitol steps, Kirk said that, after practicing, he knows exactly what he’ll be thinking: “Don’t trip.”



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