Reporting Jay Levine
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Updated 01/02/13 – 8:02 p.m.
WASHINGTON (CBS) – A day before he returns to Congress, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said the stroke he suffered last January “was a gift from God,” because of the people he’s met during his rehabilitation, and “the inner faith that I developed.”
Kirk was set to return to work in Washington on Thursday, when he will climb the 45 steps at the U.S. Capitol to go to the Senate chamber.
The senator told CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine he’s ready to get back to work, nearly a year after suffering an ischemic stroke.
“I did not go through a near-death experience,” he said. “There was a time when I felt death was close, when I was in the ICU. I had an argument with my mother to bring our pastor, from the Kenilworth Union Church, who came. And I said, ‘Let’s read the [23rd] Psalm,’ which everybody in Afghanistan that I served with usually had on do rag that was printed up: ‘Lo, though I walk through the Valley of [the Shadow of] Death, I fear no evil, for thou art with me.’”
But Kirk said his thoughts of death soon were replaced by a determination to live; to recover, not just partway, but all the way.
“I have a lot more confidence once the walking came back, and the reading ability came back. You get the sense that rehab really works, and in my case it does,” Kirk said.
The first halting steps he took on a treadmill at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago after his stroke led to climbing stairs at the RIC, then 37 flights of stairs at the Willis Tower, and finally the 45 steps he’ll climb on Thursday to the senate side of the U.S. Capitol.
“I will be thinking cameras are on, don’t trip,” Kirk joked. “For me it was the culmination of what I had been dreaming of for months in a hospital room; to be all the way up on top of the Capitol.”
Kirk said his experience has taught him the importance of family and faith.
“I won’t overstate my conversion. I will definitely say that in every foxhole, there are no atheists. I’ve been in a very deep foxhole with this stroke,” Kirk said.
Early video of his rehabilitation showed just how difficult his task was, and there were times when even Kirk himself wondered whether he’d be able to make it back to work.
“I honestly had doubts … at times,” he said. “Because I was improving so rapidly, I thought about this day a lot, and knew I could nail it.”
It was long, it was hard, but in kirk’s case it was worth it. He remains challenged physically; he needs a cane for short distances, and a wheelchair when there’s more ground to cover.
While recovering and rehabilitating at the hospital – when the mind was willing, but the flesh was weak – he kept his mind active by learning a new language.
“The nice thing is, I’ve been stuck in a hospital room for a long time, looking for intellectual input, and asked my caregivers to teach me Polish, because many of them were directly from the old country,” Kirk said. “So I would sit in my ‘łóżko,’ which is Polish for bed, and wait for my ‘prysznic,’ which is shower, until it was ‘koniec,’ which is finished.”
When Kirk climbs the 45 steps to the Senate on Thursday, it won’t be the first time he’s made the climb since his stroke.
“I have rehearsed it. … I have walked up those steps,” he said. “It was a thrill the day I did it.”
Throughout his ordeal, he said he never felt sorry for himself; or alone.
“I don’t ask for any sympathy. The stroke was a gift from God,” he said. “Because of who I got to meet, and the inner faith that I developed.”
He said he met a number of other patients who also had suffered strokes, including a 10-year-old boy from Champaign.
“I miss those patients. We were all broken people, supporting each other, and it’s those people that I felt were that I was closest to, of any human being on the Earth,” Kirk said.
Now, for them and for others, Kirk has a special place in his heart, and a new mission in life.
“I have become a lot more compassionate, and just thinking about my fellow citizens of Illinois who go through stroke, and how I can be their advocate, and help them out,” Kirk said.
As for his political future, even though he’s not up for re-election until 2016, Kirk said he already plans to seek another term in the Senate.
“Oh definitely run again, because the opportunity to serve the state of Illinois is so big. What I will say is, since I got sick, I’ve become more and more optimistic about the future our country. I plan on a big speech to talk about that.”
When Kirk goes back to the Senate on Thursday, he’ll be joined by Senate colleagues from both sides of the aisle; among them, fellow Illinois U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin.
“This poor man, he’s lucky to be alive after what he went through, and now this year-long struggle to get back on his feet and come back to the Senate. Everybody, everybody is pulling for Mark Kirk,” Durbin said.
Vice President Joe Biden, a former Senate colleague, will also be on hand for Kirks’ return to Congress.
Kirk said he hopes to team up with fellow U.S. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-South Dakota), who suffered a brain hemorrhage in 2006, to work on behalf of other survivors of strokes and neurological disorders.