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Kirk Climbs Capitol Steps, Returns To Congress A Year After Stroke

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Illinois Senator Mark Kirk (center) waves as he is welcomed by Vice President Joe Biden (left) and colleagues, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (right) and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (far right) on Jan. 3, 2013. (Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Illinois Senator Mark Kirk (center) waves as he is welcomed by Vice President Joe Biden (left) and colleagues, West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin (right) and Illinois Senator Dick Durbin (far right) on Jan. 3, 2013. (Photo credit: JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images)

Updated 01/03/13 – 4:12 p.m.

WASHINGTON (CBS) – Greeted by applause from fellow members of Congress and a crowd of onlookers, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-IL) returned to the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, climbing the 45 steps of the Capitol Building one at a time.

Kirk returned to Congress nearly a year after suffering a major stroke.

A day before his return, Kirk joked about his task of walking up the Capitol steps in front of a huge crowd.

“I will be thinking cameras are on, don’t trip,” Kirk said.

CBS 2 Chief Correspondent Jay Levine reports Kirk took his first step up the Capitol steps with the aid of Chicagoan Terry Gainer, the senate’s sergeant at arms. Then, he was immediately greeted by Vice President Joe Biden.

“Welcome back,” Biden said.

“I don’t know many people that get the Vice President to come greet them when they come back to work,” Peoria Republican Congressman Aaron Schock said.

Schock was among those who lined the staircase to the ceremonial Senate front door Thursday morning. He said Biden told him he’d done the same thing as a senator after recovering from several aneurysms.

“It was amazing. And I’ll tell you, it’s a historic moment not only in Mark’s life, but in the history of the Senate,” said U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL), who walked with Kirk up the stairs of the Senate. “Think about that, all these senators and congressmen, standing in cold, waiting patiently for his arrival, and then to greet him as he went up the steps. It was a great show of friendship and caring, and I know it meant a lot to him.”

With Biden holding one arm, and fellow U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) on the other, Kirk slowly made his way up the stairs. As he gradually took each step, Kirk called out to familiar faces in the crowd, including Congressman Mike Quigley (D-IL), and newly-elected Congresswoman Tammy Duckworth (D-IL).

There were also hundreds of well-wishers lined up outside the Capitol to watch Kirk return to Congress.

“I’ll tell you, I know he was stunned when he looked out across the street. I mean, you’re looking at colleagues lined up on the stairs, and all media; but across the street, there were several hundred people cheering. That’s amazing. That’s amazing in this town,” Durbin said.

Among those across the street was former Illinois Congressman John Porter, who Kirk used to work for. Porter saw Kirk’s potential, talent, and drive – which helped Kirk achieve the goal he set months ago, when he was still relearning how to walk.

“It’s a real tribute to his courage, and his determination, and will to make that happen,” Porter said.

At one point during his climb, Kirk – a U.S. Naval reserve officer – paused, either to rest or acknowledge a friend in the crowd, when someone called out, “No break for Navy.”

“That was the Army-Navy rivalry. It was Senator Jack Reid, a graduate of West Point, who is of course all-Army, constantly chiding Navy,” Durbin said. “So he was calling out to him.”

When he finally got to the top step, he was greeted by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and Illinois Congressman Bobby Rush, who successfully fought his way back to Congress after a bout with cancer a few years ago.

“When he came into the building, walked over the door to the chamber, and came inside, the gallery stood up and applauded,” Durbin said. “It really was a beautiful way to start this new session.”

Kirk’s historic journey from the bottom to the top of those 45 steps of the Capitol building took about nine minutes, but in reality it took him almost a year to get back to work in Congress.

On Jan. 23, 2012, he suffered an ischemic stroke which nearly killed him. He reported seeing three angels at the foot of his bed when he woke up in the hospital.

He underwent surgery to reduce swelling around his brain, and has spent the past year learning how to talk, walk, and use his hands all over again. Most people in his situation don’t fare as well; only a third of stroke victims make it back to work at all.

Kirk said he has visualized this day many times, and even rehearsed making the climb up the steps. He said visualizing his return to Congress served as an inspiration to him during his recovery and rehabilitation.

He has said he hopes his successful recovery will serve as an inspiration to other stroke victims and their families.

“I refuse to give up. That’s the message I have for anybody in Illinois who has survived stroke: don’t give up,” Kirk said Wednesday. “To have that message that I want throughout Illinois, for family members to tell their family member who is going through stroke: ‘Look, in a few months, Kirk was walking the steps of the Capitol. Don’t give up.’”

Kirk has called his stroke “a gift from God.”

“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.

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.

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