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Sen. Mark Kirk doing better — asks for Blackberry

Sen. Mark Kirk

Sen. Mark Kirk

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Updated: February 25, 2012 8:16AM

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) who had a stroke over the weekend and is at the intensive care unit in Northwestern Memorial Hospital, is showing promising signs in his recovery, doctors said Tuesday.

He is asking questions, is alert — and even asked for his Blackberry at one point.

“The fact that he is doing all of those things this quickly ... is a very good sign,” said Dr. Richard Fessler, the neurosurgeon who performed the surgery to reduce brain-swelling on the

52-year-old senator.

While Fessler at first said the senator was “ready to go back to work,” he later said that’s not quite true, but he was emphasizing that Kirk is “thinking about communicating and thinking about work.”

Still, Fessler noted that part of Kirk’s face remains slightly paralyzed, which is causing him to slur his speech. That can get better with therapy.

He also said Kirk will likely remain in intensive care for a week while doctors monitor the swelling in his brain before they can reattach the piece of skull that was removed.

Fessler said that Kirk’s “lifestyle has been very healthy” and noted that Kirk has to pass physicals for the Navy, where he is in the reserves, twice a year.

“I don’t think this event had anything to do with either stress or diet,” he said. “It’s just one of those unfortunate disasters that happens to people sometimes.”

On Monday, Fessler noted that the stroke was on his right side, also a good sign.

“Fortunately, the stroke was not on the left side of the brain, in which case it would affect his ability to speak, understand and think. We are very hopeful that when we get through all the recovery, all those functions will be intact.”

Fessler also said then that Kirk’s recovery would be a “long haul.”

Elected to the Senate in 2010 after serving five terms in the U.S. House, Kirk underwent a three-hour surgery Sunday night in which doctors removed a 4-inch by 8-inch section of his skull to relieve swelling.

Kirk, who lives in north suburban Highland Park, was able to drive himself to Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital in Lake Forest after suffering the stroke on Saturday, “where doctors discovered a carotid artery dissection in the right side of his neck,” according to the senator’s office. He was transferred to downtown Northwestern, where further tests revealed he had suffered an ischemic stroke, staffers said.

Ischemic strokes, which result from an obstruction within a blood vessel supplying blood to the brain, account for about 87 percent of all stroke cases.

“We do not know what caused the stroke,” Fessler said Monday. “His condition apparently began with a blockage of his carotid artery. At this point, the artery is completely occluded [blocked]. Part of the areas that are not getting blood from that artery will begin to get blood from other arteries. Other areas will not.

“The use of his left arm is going to be very difficult. I’m hopeful for the use of his left leg. Sen. Kirk’s job is cerebral, and I believe the functions required to do his job are going to be fine. Sen. Kirk is young, was very healthy and in good shape, and he’s very strong. All of these things are in his favor,” Fessler said, adding that the senator will have months of rehab.

Ischemic strokes cause swelling in the brain, vs. hemorrhagic strokes, where there is bleeding. Symptoms include sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body; sudden confusion, trouble speaking, blurred vision, dizziness and headache, according to the American Stroke Association.

“He was having some dizziness and perhaps some difficulty with headache,” Fessler said of Kirk’s symptoms before checking himself into the hospital. By the time he arrived at Northwestern, he was going downhill fast. “He was becoming less responsive. He began to deteriorate neurologically,” necessitating the surgery, said Fessler.

Kirk, who is divorced, started out in Washington as a member of then-U.S. Rep. John Edward Porter’s staff in 1984, then 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. He is also an officer in the Navy Reserves.

In an issued statement, Kirk’s family said, “We are very grateful for the excellent treatment and care provided by the doctors and their medical teams at both Lake Forest Hospital and Northwestern Memorial Hospital. We are equally grateful for the love and support of our family and friends. We are very encouraged by the prognosis.

“Mark has always shown great courage and resilience and we are confident that the fighter in him will prevail.”

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