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Sen. Mark Kirk doing better — asks for Blackberry

Sen. Mark Kirk

Sen. Mark Kirk

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Updated: February 26, 2012 8:10AM

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) is showing promising signs of recovery after having a stroke over the weekend, and even had the gumption to ask for his Blackberry, doctors managing his care said Tuesday.

“The senator is doing very well. I’m very happy with his progress and where his condition sits right now,” said Dr. Richard Fessler, the neurosurgeon who operated Sunday to reduce swelling of Kirk’s brain.

“He asked for his Blackberry yesterday, so he’s ready to go back to work,” Fessler said Tuesday, tongue in cheek. “He’s doing better than I expected he would be doing at this point.”

Kirk was alert, aware of his medical situation, his surroundings and those around him and was able to follow commands and answer his doctor’s questions, though his speech was slurred, Fessler said.

Kirk , 52, suffered the stroke on the right side of his brain, which governs motor function; the left side governs cognitive functions. Kirk has “slight facial paralysis on the left side of his face,” but that can get better with therapy, Fessler said, indicating all initial signs are positive.

“If he were not doing well, he would not be responding to questions. He would not be able to follow commands. He would not be talking. The fact that he is doing all of those things this quickly after having had the stroke and having the surgery is a very good sign,” Fessler said.

Kirk suffered the stroke on Saturday. After feeling symptoms including dizziness, numbness on his left side and headache, he drove himself from his Highland Park home to Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital.

There, doctors discovered a carotid artery dissection in the right side of his neck, and Kirk was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital downtown, where further tests revealed he had suffered an ischemic stroke. As he began to “deteriorate neurologically,” Fessler led a medical team that performed a three-hour operation just before midnight Sunday, removing a 4-inch-by-8-inch section of Kirk’s skull to relieve brain swelling.

He was in intensive care, although doctors have removed his breathing tube, and he remained sedated.

Fessler, who served on Kirk’s health-care policy team and has known him for several years, emphasized that doctors may never know the cause of the stroke in the seemingly healthy senator, who is also an officer in the Navy Reserve.

“He works out regularly. He eats a reasonably good diet and takes care of himself. He had to pass his Navy physical twice a year. So he had to be in reasonably good shape,” Fessler said.

“But I don’t think that this event has anything to do with either stress or his diet. It’s just one of those unfortunate disasters that happen to people sometimes,” he added.

Kirk, who is divorced, spent 10 years in the U.S. House before winning the seat formerly held by President Barack Obama in a close race against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias in 2010. Doctors declined to speculate on the length of rehabilitation and recovery time he might face before he could think of returning to work.

When the brain swelling begins to go down, and he no longer requires round-the-clock observation, Kirk will be moved to a regular floor. The piece of skull that was removed will be will be replaced using titanium plates and screws that will permanently remain in Kirk’s head, Fessler said. Only after that will the senator be able to proceed to rehab, Fessler said.

“Recovery from a stroke is a long process. You not only have to recover from the event itself, but the patient has to recover from the surgery in addition to that,” he said. “But then you’re left with some neurologic defects that you have to work to improve over time, and/or learn to live with. The recovery process and the learning process to re-establish your life after a stroke is a long process.”

As for Kirk’s spirits, “I don’t know,” the doctor said. “But I assume he’s worried and concerned.”

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