On Saturday morning, January 21, 2012, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois began to feel dizzy. Then, his left arm grew numb. The 52-year-old senator was in the first stages of what became an ischemic stroke—a blocked carotid artery was not delivering blood to his brain. The stroke affected the left side of Senator Kirk's body, leaving him unable to walk. After almost a full year of often painful and frustrating rehabilitation and recovery, Senator Kirk mounted the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 3, 2013, to once again take his seat in the Senate.
You have said that the quality and intensity of your rehabilitation was crucial to your recovery. What were the key elements to successful rehabilitation for you?
Key elements crucial to my recovery were my physical therapists, occupational therapists, and speech staff at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. I was able to achieve small yet great successes because of the intensity of the interactions I had with these therapists on a day-to-day basis.
As an example, once, after about an hour on the treadmill, trying to do a simple thing that my brain would no longer communicate to my limb, I threw up on my physical therapist, Michael Klonowski. He looked at me and said, "I can't believe you just did that."
Was there a breakthrough moment for you in the course of your rehabilitation?
There was a major breakthrough moment, which was when my physical therapist, Michael Klonowski, taught me how to walk again. After that, I became more motivated with every step I took.
What did you use for motivation to keep going when it was so tough?
I wanted to give up almost every day and was so fatigued. What kept me going was my desire to return to the Senate, to come back and work for the people of Illinois who elected me. I am an optimist now, and I want to make my life matter by doing work that matters to others.
As a U.S. Senator, you keep a demanding schedule. Are there lifestyle steps you take to keep up your energy?
I am a different person now, and my left arm and left leg may not work the way they once did, but my mind is sharp. I recognize the importance of getting sufficient rest, which helps me keep up energy throughout the day.
What message do you have for other Americans who are recovering from strokes and other serious health challenges? What about their families?
That if you should ever hear the terrible diagnosis of stroke, to remember that it is not all over. You can get much better. Even though it's quite a shock, and you may be afraid of dying, a significant improvement can take place if you remain dedicated to your rehabilitation.
Climbing up the steps of the U.S. Capitol on January 3 and returning to the Senate was one of the greatest moments of my life, and I want to send that message to all stroke survivors—never, ever give up.