RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Two years ago last January, U.S. Senator Mark Kirk was getting ready for another busy working day, filled with appointments, when he felt a strange sensation.
SENATOR MARK KIRK: I was in my house in Illinois, in the bathroom. A little temporary dizziness indicated that I had a problem that ought to be looked at by a doctor.
MARTIN: He called his assistant, cancelled his appointments and drove himself to the hospital. It was a stroke.
KIRK: I woke up in the ICU in the hospital in Chicago. I had a very weird sensation that there was a leg next to me that was I thought was another human being, and I couldn't even tell the difference between me and the leg.
MARTIN: Kirk has now been back at the Senate for the past year, feeling good although not without the side effects. He spoke with us this past week about his recovery.
KIRK: The stroke really blows out a lot of things in your mind; the ability to distinguish between left and right, and the ability to understand between me and other. It was a huge mental shock for me.
MARTIN: So you started recovery. How did you think about your prognosis?
KIRK: I had no idea of the difficulties that lie ahead for me and how tough rehab would be. Takes long and patient work to rewire your brain.
MARTIN: So you didn't doubt that you had...
KIRK: I've always been kind of a glass half empty guy, always trying to understand all the problems in front of me and then work the problem, work the problem always was my intention. I wasn't normally a very religious guy. A lot of prayer went into bucking me up.
MARTIN: You had a lot of support during your recovery. You received one letter though, from a 9-year-old boy...
MARTIN: ...that meant a lot to you. Can you tell us about Jackson Cunningham?
KIRK: Jackson Cunningham of Champaign area, Illinois, here he was trying to buck up his junior senator. I thought this is a remarkable boy that I've got to meet and I eventually had the honor to meet Jackson.
MARTIN: What did he say in that letter that reached you in such a way?
KIRK: He said, you know, hang in there, you know, do what your physical therapist -he used the terms that we stroke patients all know: PT, OT and ST which is physical therapy, occupational therapy and speech therapy. I could tell he was a veteran when he - of the stroke wars.
KIRK: Empathetic and understanding and patient. I would say some day he is going to be a really remarkable young man. I said to him eventually, hopefully, you'll replace me in the Senate.
MARTIN: You worked really hard on your rehab.
KIRK: I did.
MARTIN: And in January of 2013, you went back to work.
MARTIN: You climbed the 45 steps of the U.S. Capitol. What was that journey like?
KIRK: That was the best day of my life. I had the staff count the number of steps from the parking lot to the front door of the Senate. And so during my physical rehab, I worked with my specialist always to do nothing less than 45 steps. So we probably did thousands. I thought since I was a well-known public figure in my state that I could serve an example to families to say that all is not lost, you are going to make it, especially if you treat what your physical therapist says is the revealed word of God.
MARTIN: You have introduced legislation, I understand, that advocates for stroke rehabilitation. Can you tell us about that?
KIRK: The point of the legislation is to look at a problem we have in America with about 900,000 Americans suffering from stroke and only one-third of them ever going back to work. You know, just think about the loss in independence and dignity that they go through. I want us to set a national standard of going back to work after a stroke.
MARTIN: What kind of side-effects are you dealing with now?
KIRK: Probably the number one stroke side-effect is exhaustion.
MARTIN: How do you manage that? It's a grueling job.
KIRK: You just, you got to take a quick moment on the nearest couch and have a 20-minute power nap that my dad was famous for.
KIRK: And just bounce right back.
MARTIN: Do you do that? Do you tell your staff: I'm taking a nap?
KIRK: I do. Sometimes you need that 20 minutes and just bounce right - and get right back in the fight.
MARTIN: Illinois Senator Mark Kirk. He joined us from his office in Washington, D.C. at the Capitol. Thanks so much for sharing your story with us, Senator.
KIRK: Thank you, Rachel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.