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U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, shown here in 2009, has been asking for his BlackBerry from his hospital bed.

Doctors cautiously optimistic about Kirk

by Thomas Owen
Jan 24, 2012

Sen. Mark Kirk remained at Northwestern Memorial Hospital Tuesday after suffering a stroke over the weekend. Doctors said that though recovery may be a long, arduous process, the future for the 52-year-old senator could be optimistic.

“He called me on Saturday morning, somewhere around noon,” said Dr. Jay Alexander, Kirk’s personal physician. He said that Kirk had visual complaints and was feeling faint. After the senator rested for about 20 minutes, Alexander said, Kirk told him he tried to keep an engagement downtown.

Kirk started to feel numbness in his arm while riding downtown, Alexander said. Kirk was admitted to the emergency room at Lake Forest Hospital. Alexander said a CT scan of Kirk’s brain was normal, and that his blood pressure and cholesterol levels were in a normal range. But a CT angiogram showed an internal dissection of his carotid artery, a major artery that supplies blood to the brain, rendering the artery “for all purposes, not functional,” he said.

“A dissection of the tissue” is what happens when the innermost of three layers of tissue surrounding a blood vessel peels off and it “is a mechanism and blockage is a result,” said Dr. Demetrius Lopes, director of neuroendovascular surgery at Rush University Medical Center.

Kirk was in the ER until about 9 p.m., Alexander said, before he started showing “fluctuating neurological signs.” At that point the senator was transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital. Kirk had suffered a stroke as a result of the dissection.

The problem with this type of stroke, Lopes said, is that it is a “much more random event” than strokes resulting from atherosclerosis, which are well understood and can be prevented through monitoring one’s cholesterol. Blockages as a result of a dissection, he said, can happen to an otherwise healthy person and are hardly preventable.

“The body’s a fragile thing,” said Alexander, who remains in constant contact with Kirk and Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s staff. “The good thing is that things are stabilizing,” he said. Alexander added that he is “cautiously optimistic” considering Kirk’s relative young age and otherwise good health.

Lopes agreed. Rehabilitation looks “way more optimistic” with a healthy 52-year-old than it would with a 70-year-old-man, Lopes said. According to an assistant to Dr. Richard Fessler, Kirk’s surgeon, Kirk and Fessler were still in surgery Tuesday morning. Neurosurgeons removed a 4-by-8 inch section of Kirk’s skull; a procedure Lopes said “is to help the patient survive the event.”

Fessler told a news conference Monday that Kirk could experience trouble on the left side of his body.

“What’s sad about this whole thing is that an active person has to deal with this weakness that will change their lifestyle,” Lopes said.

“[Kirk] is young and in good physical condition and I have no doubt he will make a speedy recovery,” Sen. Dick Durbin said in a statement Monday. “I have reached out to his staff and offered to do anything I can to help with his Senate duties.”

“There is life after a stroke, but it doesn’t come without a lot of work,” Lopes said.

Through Kirk’s Senate work, Lopes said, “He’s proven that he’s probably a fighter.”