Sen. Mark Kirk letter details stroke symptoms, progression

May 9, 2012 (CHICAGO)

The Republican has been out of the public eye since having a massive stroke in late January. He writes:

On Saturday, Jan. 21, I woke up with a headache. The headache worsened as the morning progressed, but I wanted to keep to my work schedule. At 11 a.m., a member of my staff, Andrew Weissert, picked me up at my house in Highland Park to take me to a noon meeting of my Eastern European Advisory Board in Chicago. In the car, I felt new symptoms -- numbness in my hands and problems with my vision. I realized this was not a headache or even a migraine.

From the car, I called my physician and good friend, Dr. Jay Alexander. Jay told me to get to the emergency room at Lake Forest Hospital as soon as possible and he would meet me there. Andrew turned the car around and we headed back north. I walked into the hospital and checked in. Jay and the doctors at Lake Forest examined me and conducted a number of tests. My condition worsened. All of my symptoms became more severe. It was determined that my right carotid artery had been "dissected" - that is, blocked - by unknown causes. The reduced blood flow to my brainhad caused a moderate ischemic stroke.

The medical team decided to transfer me toNorthwestern Memorial Hospital late that afternoon in case surgery was necessary. Late Saturday afternoon, I rode downtown in an ambulance with Jay by my side. At Northwestern, I was examined by Dr. Richard Fessler, a renowned neurosurgeon. Dr. Fessler had been involved with me in various health policy initiatives over the years, so I knew I was receiving the best possible care.

On Sunday, I felt four waves pass through my brain, each lasting approximately 15 minutes. I cannot describe the feeling except to say that something profound was happening inside my skull. Those waves were causing my brain to swell and my symptoms worsened. The strokes affected the portions of my brain that regulate movement on my left side.

The medical team at Northwestern, in consultation with my family, decided to operate. Sunday evening, Dr. Fessler and his surgical team removed a 4-by-8-inch section of my skull to relieve the swelling. I am told that I woke up on Monday morning and asked for my BlackBerry, although I have no recollection of that now.

Over the next two days, the swelling in my brain did not go down, and Dr. Fessler and Dr. H. Hunt Batjer operated again, removing the dead portion of my brain as well as more bone to allow for more swelling. Since that second surgery, I have been on a steady course of recovery. Two weeks later, the removed section of my skull was replaced and my head was back in one piece. A week after that, I transferred out of Northwestern's intensive care unit and moved into the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, just a few blocks away. For the past two months, I have been working for hours each day to regain my ability to walk and other motor functions.

I was very fortunate that the stroke affected the right side of my brain. While I could not at first move the left side of my body, my cognitive and speech functions were not impaired. With a lot of work and a lot of help, I have been slowly regaining movement on the left side of my body.

Throughout this time, I have been blessed with great care from some of the finest health care workers in the world. Jesserine, "Jazz," one of my nurses at RIC, has become a great friend. I do not know what I would have done without her skills and professionalism. Jazz and her colleagues saved my life and have facilitated my recovery in more ways than I could list.

I am most indebted to my family - my mother Judy, my stepmother Bev, my sisters Robin, Maya and Kira, my brother Eric - for standing by me during these past 31/2 months, holding my hand during the darkest hours. I have also been blessed by my congressional family, which has stood by me and my staff during this period. Sens. Dick Durbin, Joe Manchin, Scott Brown, Bob Corker, Mitch McConnell and others in the Senate and House have all gone out of their way to help us continue to work on behalf of the people of Illinois.

May is Stroke Awareness Month. Approximately 700,000 Americans suffer from strokes each year. Nearly one-fourth of these strokes are fatal. Stroke is the fourth-leading cause of death in our nation, and one of the top causes of long-term disability. Thousands of Illinoisans will die of a stroke this year.

Early detection is key to survival. My early symptoms - severe headache, numbness and vision problems - are typical. Other symptoms are dizziness, confusion and trouble speaking. Many strokes are preventable through quitting smoking, improving diet, more exercise and other measures that reduce blood pressure.

My staff and I are working on a legislative package to help with early detection and prevention programs.

Thank you to my family, my health care providers and the people of Illinois for standing by me during this long recovery. I intend to be back at work as soon as possible, working for Illinois and for greater awareness of the challenges we all face from stroke.

Mark Kirk is a U.S. senator from Illinois.

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