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January 1, 2013

Illinois Sen. Kirk to return a year after stroke

CHICAGO — 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.”

Kirk will walk back into a Congress that has grappled for weeks over how to avoid going over the “fiscal cliff,” a series of across-the-board tax increases and spending cuts due to take effect Tuesday. President Barack Obama indicated Monday afternoon that a deal was in sight, but not yet finalized. But House Republicans said they will not vote on the issue Monday night, and it remained unclear whether the Senate would vote Monday.

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.

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