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Sen. Mark Kirk returns to Congress after stroke

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Updated: February 5, 2013 6:25AM



WASHINGTON — One could see the strain on U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk’s face Thursday as he began his ascent — at first with little help.

He planted a cane with four prongs on a stone step of the U.S. Capitol, put his weight on his right leg to lift his body, then swung his left leg to follow.

One slow, deliberate step at a time, Kirk scrunched his brow as he mouthed “one,” then “two,” continuing for the first five steps.

Then Kirk broke into a smile: the Illinois Republican who had to learn again how to walk since suffering a stroke nearly one year ago, had reached the first landing in a climb that would ultimately mean 45 steps.

“Welcome back man,” Vice President Joe Biden shouted, then walked over and embraced Kirk to a round of applause. “I’m happy as can be to be here.”

Biden tucked his left arm under Kirk’s right side and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W Va.), Kirk’s best friend in the Senate, placed an arm around Kirk’s waist as they together helped steady Kirk up the steps.

A frigid wind was blowing on this 36-degree day. Still, in a rare moment of unity in a town often filled with rancor and divisiveness, dozens of colleagues — from both chambers, from both sides of the aisle — lined a set of Capitol steps outdoors to witness this story of triumph.

Some of the most notable politicians in the United States lined the Senate side of this edifice; U.S. senators John Kerry, Orrin Hatch, Harry Reid, Dick Durbin were among a few.

At one point, Kirk stopped and yelled out “Tammy!” to newly-minted congresswoman Tammy Duckworth, (D-Ill). Duckworth, an Iraqi veteran lost both her legs after her Blackhawk helicopter was shot down, was there to show support too, she said. Kirk stopped at another point, asking U.S. Sen Kay Hagan of North Carolina to come over. The two embraced.

“It’s the culmination of a dream that I’ve had since I was in the hospital,” said Kirk in an interview with the Chicago Sun-Times a day earlier.

Kirk, 53, suffered a stroke last January, which involved a series of brain surgeries including one where part of his head was removed to allow his brain to swell. Kirk has undergone months of aggressive rehab through the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

“Seeing what he’s done is just absolutely inspiring,” said Kirk’s physical therapist Michael Klonowski. Kirk’s medical team traveled to Washington and talked to the media, saying Kirk had undergone about 100 physical therapy sessions — many of them under the umbrella of a clinical trial offered by the institute to people who suffered a stroke. The trial sought to measure a stroke patients progress after rigorous therapy, including treadmill walking.

Klonoswki insisted that Kirk received no special treatment because he was a U.S. senator. Sources close to Kirk said his retirement and savings accounts have been impacted as he’s dipped into his own pocket to cover a portion of his medical expenses.

While Kirk does not suffer from paralysis on his left side, he had to teach himself how to walk again, in part by figuring it out in his mind, said one of Kirk’s physicians, George Hornby.

Kirk explained he one day envisioned his left leg as a giant dead tuna stapled to his hip.

Once he figured that out: “you couldn’t stop me from walking,” he said in an interview a day earlier.

It was that steady progress that helped Kirk get to the point where he could attempt such a climb as he did on Thursday.

He continued steadily up with the help of Biden and Manchin, again counting steps toward the end of his climb.

When he reached the top, the crowd erupted into cheers and applause.

Biden hugged Kirk. Reid told him: “it is an act of courage I admire so very, very much,” Reid later recounted.

Kirk walked into the Capitol with Biden and Manchin holding his arms. Looking exhausted, Kirk paused when he approached the doors as if to absorb the moment of his return.

“Nice to see you guys,” Kirk said to the press waiting outside the Senate chamber doors.

How did it feel to be back?

“Feels great,” Kirk said.

When he entered the Senate chambers, his colleagues burst into a round of applause and paid tribute to his return.

“The fact that Mark’s here today says a lot about his tenacity, his dedication, and his commitment to the people of Illinois,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) “I’m told that about two-thirds of the patients in the facility where he’s been recovering over the past year don’t return to work; but true to form, Mark opted for an experimental rehabilitation program so grueling it’s been compared to military boot camp.”

Klonoswki said it wasn’t “like” a boot camp: “it was a boot camp.”

U.S. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) called it a “personal triumph.”

“It’s very moving,” Kerry said. “It is great to see a courageous guy fight back and come back.”

Earlier, when Kirk was near his desk in the Senate, Sen. John McCain (R-Az.) approached. The two men hugged and Kirk snapped off a salute.

“We are all very happy and we are joyful that he is doing so well,” McCain said. “It is a wonderful thing to have him back.”



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