Mark Kirk: The Senator's comeback

(CBS News) Nearly 800,000 Americans a year suffer a stroke, a catastrophic event that is no respecter of title or position. And though the vast majority of stroke victims survive, recovery can be a long and difficult step-by-step process. Rita Braver in Washington has a case in point:

It was, said Sen. Mark Kirk, the best day of his life.

In a rare gathering, members of both sides of a rancorous government lined the front of the Capitol this past winter, led by Democratic Vice President Joe Biden. They were there to support the junior Senator from Illinois, the Republican Mark Kirk, as he prepared to perform what for him would be an arduous task. His goal: to climb all 45 steps soo he could return to work after a year's absence.

It was a remarkable comeback. In late January 2012, about a year after he was sworn in, Kirk had found himself in an ambulance, suffering a stroke, which basically meant the blood supply to his brain was being cut off.

"I reached out to the ambulance tech," Kirk told Braver, "and I remember staring at her blue hands -- she had a glove on -- just 'cause I wanted to hold someone's hand until I died."

With members of the Senate and the Illinois Congressional delegation lining the steps on the east front of the Capitol, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), second from right, walks up the steps to the Senate door with help from Vice President Joe Biden (right) and U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), January 3, 2013 in Washington, D.C. Kirk has spent the last 10 months learning to walk again after suffering a stroke.
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

But Kirk, just 52 at the time, was saved because doctors at Chicago's Northwestern Memorial Hospital realized his brain was starting to swell.

"They performed what's called a craniotomy," Kirk said, "that involves opening up a hole in the skull to relieve pressure on the brain."

Neurological surgeon Richard Fessler, who led Kirk's medical team, says delaying the procedure might have been disastrous.

"He could have died, and probably worse than that is, he could have been vegetative -- meaning that he's not dead, but he has no reasonable brain function," said Dr. Fessler.

But Kirk was lucky. And because the stroke was on the right side of his brain, it didn't damage his cognitive ability as much as his motor skills. However, the cadence of his speech was affected, and the whole left side of his body is impaired.

After three weeks in the hospital, he was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he spent some 10 months undergoing in- and out-patient therapy, including time in a special program in which younger, stronger patients are pushed to take 3,000-4,000 steps an hour in comparison to 300-400 steps in standard physical therapy

Kirk had not walked since suffering the stroke; yet Mike Kolonosky, who was Kirk's lead therapist, said, "What we saw was a very driven, young, smart guy, who comes in here ready to get back to doing what he does so well."

"The stroke affected my left leg," Kirk said, "and he said, 'It's gonna come back, it's gonna bear weight.' And like, you don't know this leg. You don't know how useless he is. And it has come back.

Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., discusses his rehabilitation following a stroke.
CBS News

The Senator, who is divorced, was a five-term Member of the House before being was elected to the Senate in 2010, to fill the Senate seat that Barack Obama gave up to become president.

Kirk has a reputation for bipartisanship, often teaming with his Illinois colleague Dick Durbin.

He is also one of the few pro-choice, pro-gun control and pro-gay marriage Republicans in the Senate. But he counts himself a fiscal conservative.

And, although he says he feels for Americans who don't have the same good healthcare benefits that he receives, he voted against the president's universal health coverage plan.

Did his stroke, and his recovery, change his view on that, asked Braver.

"It hasn't," replied Kirk. "What I worried about was, we all know the federal government's out of money, that if you make that promise people will believe you and you've got to come through. Don't make promises that you can't keep."

Furthermore, while under Senate rules Kirk was paid during a year of absence, he says he still does not support extending unemployment benefits for out-of-work Americans.

"Even your own experience has not changed that for you?" asked Braver.

"It hasn't," he replied. "I'm still very much a fiscal conservative."