Mark Kirk Survived a Stroke--Now He's Picking Fights in Congress

Matthew Cooper

After suffering a massive ischemic stroke in January 2012, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., was unsure if he would ever return to full form. For days, Kirk lingered in the intensive care unit, floating in and out of consciousness. At one point, Kirk recalls, he saw angels with New York accents talking to him, urging him to come with them, as in all those near-death, white-light stories you hear.

But against the long odds, the freshman Republican senator has not only managed to recover enough to perform his busy day job, he's placed himself in the middle of the most heated Washington fights. Kirk slammed Attorney General Eric Holder at a recent Appropriations Committee hearing, probing to see if the National Security Agency was listening in on Congress and livid about Holder's seemingly evasive answer. Kirk's threat not to support immigration reform unless border security was strengthened surprised many of his colleagues and endangered Republican support for the bill. He got in a fight with Rep. Bobby Rush, the Chicago Democrat, who chided Kirk for his plan to "crush" Chicago's gangs, saying it was an "upper-middle-class, elitist white boy's solution."

And Kirk says he's already planning to run for a second term in 2016, despite the rigor it will take to defend a seat in one of the most Democratic states in the country.

Kirk's recovery has been remarkable by the standards of a stroke patient, even as it's still left him without his pre-injury vigor or ability to hustle the way politicians must to win reelection in competitive seats. He walks slowly. His voice is weakened. He's not all he was. But his comeback has been inspiring.

"If people knew how catastrophic this stroke was, they'd be blown away by his recovery," says Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., who was the first member of the state's House delegation to visit Kirk in the hospital in 2012. Asked if he ever had any doubts that Kirk would want back in politics, he recalls the senator, even though he was in rehab, staying up late to watch the HBO film Game Change. "That was the signal to me that he was coming back."

Kirk's stroke largely spared his cognitive function but has left him disabled, dependent on the kind of four-legged cane you usually see on the elderly, and a wheelchair for longer hikes. "The Senate is appropriately designed for older men," he jokes. He was just 52 when the stroke hit.

When he walked up the Capitol stairs in January to the bipartisan applause of his colleagues-including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, his fellow Illinois senator with whom he has a close relationship--it was an emotional moment that left many believing the stroke had in some ways made him a more important force--less an object of sympathy than an inspiring example of perseverance.

To understand Kirk, you have to know that he's a creature of the Chicago suburbs and a creature of Congress. He loves both. Raised outside Chicago, the son of a telephone company executive, he graduated from Cornell University and worked for Rep. John Porter while he was at law school at Georgetown, later becoming the congressman's top aide. Porter represented Chicago's North Shore, the lakefront district that includes the leafy suburbs glorified in John Hughes movies and Kirk's hometown of Kenilworth. When Porter retired, Kirk won the seat and carried on Porter's moderate GOP politics as Illinois became more and more blue. When the U.S. Senate seat opened up in 2010, Kirk went for it and beat an Obama ally, then-state Treasurer Alexi Giannoulias, a hoops buddy of the president, in the wave of discontent.

Kirk was no tea partier, but he wasn't a bland moderate, either. He'd been a critic of the stimulus that other Republican moderates had backed and he loathed "Obamacare." "I'm a fiscal conservative, a social moderate, and a national security hawk," Kirk says, using a mantra he repeats frequently.

Just a year into his term, in January 2012, Kirk, a slim, former intelligence officer in the Naval Reserves, began to feel dizzy while back home. Aides rushed him to Lake Forest Hospital and then transferred him to the Northwestern University Medical Center when it became apparent that he'd had a massive ischemic stroke. The attack put his left carotid artery out of business and his life in danger. He had to undergo three operations, two of which were craniectomies, to remove portions of his skull to allow the brain to expand. "There was a remarkable amount of swelling," notes Richard Fessler, a professor of neurosurgery who operated on Kirk. "The surgeries were life-saving, but he's doing great."

Kirk had the kind of emotional reckoning that comes with a near-death episode. He decided to spend more time with his sister, for instance. But he never doubted he wanted to return to the Senate. He told his speech therapists that he wanted his public-speaking voice back. And he told those who worked on his physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) that he wanted to be able to climb the Capitol steps when he returned. Mike Klonowski worked with Kirk--putting him in a harness so he could move on a treadmill, putting him through the paces of a research study that pushed Kirk to do more intense physical training than the typical patient.

"There was initial shock when I found out I was going to be working with him," Klonowski remembers about the prospect of putting a U.S. Senator through the paces. "But he responded to very specific goals and wanted to make sure that we were focused on his return back to the Senate."

Now he's back and working on his recovery--and working to help other patients. This coming week he'll be in Chicago, where he'll join Durbin and Mayor Rahm Emanuel to celebrate the $550 million expansion of the RIC. "My concern is what happens if you have a stroke and you're not in the U.S. Senate, and you have no insurance and no income," Kirk says. "That's the question I have been asking, and the reality is that if you're on Illinois Medicaid and are a stroke survivor, you will get just five visits to the rehab specialist." When I ask Kirk where the money might come from for more extensive benefits, he notes that he's working with Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., on a "stroke agenda" (Johnson himself suffered a stroke).

Since his return, Kirk has cut an interesting path, weaving left and right in ways that aren't predictable. When Iran elected its new president whom many hailed as a moderate, Kirk denounced him as more of the same. He stuck with moderates on gun control, earning him an attaboy tweet from Obama consiglieri David Axelrod. But he also took a hawkish line on immigration that surprised many before he relented and supported the bill. By contrast, Kirk was full of kind words for Rahm Emanuel when I saw him. "He's doing a very, very good job," says Kirk, who served with Hizzoner when they were in the House. The two graduated in 1977 from New Trier High School in Winnetka but didn't know each other. (Donald Rumsfeld went there, too, 27 years earlier.)

With his military-intelligence background, Kirk has emerged as a compelling voice on the NSA mess, leaning closer to the privacy advocates than the voices in both parties who say everything's fine with the way we collect intelligence. "It's bad intelligence work to be focusing on 121 million Americans who aren't doing anything particularly terrorist-related," he says. Kirk notes that in the post-9/11 world, with government efforts to limit stove-piping of intelligence, low-level operatives in the field like Bradley Manning in Iraq or Edward Snowden in Honolulu have dangerous access. "We have a classified Internet on the backside of the intelligence community, and if you're on that system then a Bradley Manning can download the presidential book of secrets like in the movie [National Treasure]."

Kirk says he's interested in running again in 2016, and Republicans expect he will. In a state as Democratic as Illinois, he likely to have a serious race. He rejects the idea that Republican moderates are an endangered species, but he sounds the refrain that his party has been myopic. "What often happens is that people or politicians get out of date, and that's my worry about the Republican Party. It apparently doesn't understand how multicolored and how multicultural our country has become." Kirk was the second GOP senator, after Rob Portman and before Lisa Murkowski, to support same-sex marriage--putting him ahead of Illinois, which has yet to grant it. Divorced, with a girlfriend and no kids, and having remained unmarried until 41, Kirk gets modern families in a way that many Republicans don't. Whether that'll make him an outlier or a lodestar in the GOP remains to be seen.

For now, Kirk has bigger tasks. He regularly hauls himself up to Walter Reed Medical Center, where he gets physical therapy in the Traumatic Brain Injury clinic, along with young vets who are often missing limbs in addition to their head injuries.

"You're having a tough day, and you look over at a soldier who might be missing a leg or two arms and he is doing great," Kirk says. "And you think to yourself, 'There is nothing challenging me like what is challenging him.' "

Recalling that, Kirk tells an aide that he wants the Walter Reed therapists to push him harder--just like the ones back in Chicago.