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Senator to return to work year after stroke

CHICAGO -- Nearly a year after a stroke left him barely able to move the left side of his body, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is expected to climb the 45 steps to the Senate's front door this week -- a walk significant not just for Illinois' junior senator, but also for medical researchers and hundreds of thousands of stroke patients.

It's estimated only one-third of patients return to work after a stroke, said Dr. Elliot Roth, medical director of the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's New Patient Recovery Unit and AbilityLab, where Kirk recovered.

The 53-year-old Republican will return to the high-profile, demanding life of a Washington lawmaker after an experimental rehabilitation so intense it's often compared to boot camp, Roth said. Patients keep grueling schedules, often spending eight hours a day or more relearning how to walk, talk and do other tasks.

Because there are risks to going back to work unprepared, patients do "practice runs" of what it will be like to be back on the job. If and when they successfully return to work, Roth added, "It's like having a great symphony play and recognizing it's all the practice beforehand that went into it."

The Illinois senator's return will be inspiring to fellow stroke patients, said Frank Watson, the former Republican leader of the Illinois Senate who resigned after his 2008 stroke.

"For us in the stroke fraternity, we're very happy to see this occur, to see somebody taking their life back," Watson said.

Kirk, who won President Barack Obama's former Senate seat in 2010, checked himself into a hospital in January 2012 after feeling dizzy. Tests revealed the avid swimmer had suffered a major stroke.

Doctors said movement in Kirk's left side was severely limited. He was in intensive care, but they expected he would make a full mental recovery.

Kirk said his staff had counted the steps from the parking lot to the front door of the Senate. It was his hope to climb all 45 of them someday, "to fight for the people of Illinois."

Roth said the study represents a new approach to stroke rehabilitation, which has traditionally been slower and more cautious. In the study, one group -- which included Kirk -- was pushed harder and walked more, in an effort to see if it led to a quicker recovery.

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