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Doctors: Recovery will take weeks or months for Sen. Mark Kirk

January 23, 2012|By Katherine Skiba and Rick Pearson | Chicago Tribune

Illinois Sen. Mark Kirk is expected to recover cognitive functions but could have some physical impairment following a weekend stroke, the neurosurgeon who operated on the senator said Monday following three hours of surgery at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.

Dr. Richard Fessler said Kirk was doing "quite well" after the surgery. A four-inch-by-eight-inch portion of his skull was removed to relieve pressure from swelling and he was under sedation as doctors managed the brain trauma, Fessler said, adding he was pleased with Kirk's response to the surgery.

The stroke occurred on the right side of the brain, meaning it likely will affect the left side of his body, the doctor said. A stroke on the left side would have affected his cognitive functions,  including comprehension.

Chances for a full mental recovery were "good" but chances for a full physical recovery were "not great," Fessler said.

The doctor said he was hopeful that after rehabilitation at an acute care facility, Kirk would regain the use of his left leg, but said prospects for regaining the full use of his left arm were "very difficult." Kirk could also suffer partial facial paralysis, Fessler said.

He said recovery is a matter of weeks or months -- "it's not going to be days." Kirk's relative youth and good physical shape are positives, Fessler said, and he expects Kirk could return to "a very vibrant life."

Kirk's office said in a statement that he checked himself into Lake Forest Hospital on Saturday and doctors discovered a "carotid artery dissection in the right side of his neck." He was transferred to Northwestern Memorial.

Fessler said it was his understanding Kirk sought medical assistance Saturday because he was having some dizziness. Kirk was able to communicate when he was brought to Northwestern Memorial on Sunday, but his neurological condition deteriorated rapidly, Fessler said.

His condition apparently began with a blockage of his carotid artery, which led to the ischemic stroke. Asked if anything could have prevented it, Fessler said he didn't know based on the speed of Kirk's deterioration.

Kirk aides, including chief of staff Eric Elk, attended the hospital news conference. Aide Richard Goldberg spoke on behalf of Kirk's family, expressing appreciation for doctors and their faith in Kirk’s ability to recover.

A carotid artery dissection begins as a tear in the vessel and can divert blood from the brain, according to Dr. Demetrius K. Lopes, director of cerebrolvascular neurosurgery at Rush University Medical Center.

An ischemic stroke can happen if blood flow to the brain diminishes too much and causes cell swelling and death. By contrast, a hemorrhagic stroke occurs when there is bleeding in the brain.

Kirk, 52, spent last week on a trip through southern and central Illinois, then traveled into the snowstorm in Chicago on Friday to attend a good-bye party for a departing staff member.

Dick Durbin, the senior senator and the Senate's assistant majority leader, said in a statement that he was "stunned" by the news and that he and wife Loretta sent their best.

"I was stunned to learn that Mark suffered a stroke," the senator said. "He is young and in good physical condition and I have no doubt he will make a speedy recovery. I have reached out to his staff and offered to do anything I can to help with his Senate duties. Loretta and I will keep Mark and his family in our prayers."

Kirk captured President Obama's old U.S. Senate seat in a close 2010 election against Democrat  Alexi Giannoulias.

His victory capped a tumultuous political fight that began when former Gov. Rod Blagojevich was charged with attempting to sell the Senate seat for personal gain – a charge he was convicted of last year.

White House spokesman Jay Carney, having just learned of Kirk's condition before his televised briefing this afternoon, said officials were "obviously concerned about his condition and wish him a speedy recovery."

Mitt Romney, who had been endorsed by Kirk, said in a statement that he was "extremely distressed by the news."

"I wish him a speedy recovery and a swift return to the U.S. Senate chamber, so he can continue his important work for the people of Illinois and all the people of the United States," Romney said.

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