Nearly a year after a stroke left him barely able to move the left side of his body, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is expected to climb the 45 steps to the Senate’s front door this week – a walk that’s significant not just for Illinois’ junior senator, but also for medical researchers and hundreds of thousands of stroke patients.
It’s estimated only one-third of patients return to work after a stroke, said Dr. Elliot Roth, medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago’s New Patient Recovery Unit and AbilityLab, where Kirk recovered.
The 53-year-old Republican will return to the high-profile, demanding life of a Washington lawmaker after an experimental rehabilitation so intense it’s often compared to boot camp, Roth said. Patients keep grueling schedules, often spending eight hours a day or more re-learning how to walk, talk and do other tasks.
Because there are risks to going back to work unprepared, patients do “practice runs” of what it will be like to be back on the job. If and when they successfully return to work, Roth added, “It’s like having a great symphony play and recognizing it’s all the practice beforehand that went into it.”
The Illinois senator’s return will be inspiring to fellow stroke patients, said Frank Watson, the former Republican leader of the Illinois Senate who resigned from office after his 2008 stroke.
“For us in the stroke fraternity, we’re very happy to see this occur, to see somebody taking their life back,” Watson said. “There are so many people who don’t make it back.”
Kirk, who won President Barack Obama’s former Senate seat in 2010, checked himself into a hospital in January 2012 after feeling dizzy. Tests revealed that the avid swimmer had suffered a major stroke. Surgeons had to remove two small pieces of destroyed brain tissue, and temporarily removed a 4-inch by 8-inch portion of his skull to allow for swelling.