Senator Mark Kirk Returns to the Senate - Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

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Published on January 03, 2013

Senator Mark Kirk makes a triumphant return to the Senate

  • U.S. Senator Mark Kirk Climbs Capitol Steps  in Washington, Thursday, January 3, 2013. (Paul Morigi / AP Images for Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) AP Images for Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
  • U.S. Senator Mark Kirk Climbs Capitol Steps  in Washington, Thursday, January 3, 2013. (Paul Morigi / AP Images for Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) AP Images for Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
  • U.S. Senator Mark Kirk Climbs Capitol Steps  in Washington, Thursday, January 3, 2013. (Paul Morigi / AP Images for Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago) AP Images for Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago
  • Senator Kirk shares a tour of his office with his RIC care team.
  • Dr. Hornby details Senator Kirk's therapy, treatment and recovery during a press conference at the Capitol.
  • RIC care team holds a Q & A with members of the media.
  • A comprehensive look at the RIC Care team that helped make Sen. Kirk's return possible - Kathryn Borio, Joe Kim, Sarah Penzell, Dr. Elliot Roth, George Hornby and Mike Klonowski wait to watch the Senator climb the steps and return to work.

WASHINGTON — Senator Mark Kirk made an improbable return to work at the U.S. Capital just one year after suffering a major stroke. RIC involved the Senator in progressive trials and therapy that had a major impact on his recovery. CNN reported the following:

"When U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk made his closely watched walk up the 45 Capitol steps Thursday, his progress was slowed more by all the well-wishers than by the fact that he had to re-learn how to walk this past year.

The 53-year-old Republican from Illinois suffered a massive stroke last January. He underwent three separate brain surgeries at Northwestern University Hospital. Then he started an intensive kind of physical therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, including a nine-week-long mobility study.

'It's impressive to watch him, especially when you have a guy who was so impaired when he began,' said George Hornby, a research scientist and director of research for RIC's AbilityLab™, the unique program which treated Kirk.

After enrolling in a research study, he soon began walking about 3,600 steps a day.

'It was a very high-intensity program and we kept pushing him. We even had him on the StairMaster—even I hate doing the StairMaster at the gym,' Hornby said.

Overall, the exercise regimen could be difficult for even the most able-bodied person. But by July 12, Kirk was able to walk without a cane or harness. In November, he even walked up 37 stories to get to the top of Chicago's tallest skyscraper for a fundraiser.

Kirk's inability to walk at first following his stroke is typical. Only 37% of survivors are able to walk in their first week after suffering a stroke, according to a Duke University study.

Even patients with mild to moderate impairment experience falls. Some 73% of stroke patients fall at least once due to the stroke's lingering effects, according to the study. People with less mobility can experience increased vascular risk factors due to lack of exercise that can lead to diabetes or even further strokes.

In the past, doctors weren't entirely sure how much stroke patients should push themselves physically. Still today, only half of the 800,000 people who suffer strokes annually receive any kind of rehabilitation, according to Janet Bettger, a stroke expert at the Duke University School of Nursing. But studies show there is an immediate need for physical therapy and exercise.

'There was a time when we didn't think people should try moving right away, and there was a time when we weren't sure people really should be pushing themselves physically,' Bettger said, 'but we've seen people make remarkable progress with therapy.'

Research suggests rehabilitation work should start in the acute care hospital as early as 24 to 48 hours after a stroke. 'That's where we see the best outcome and the most opportunity because the brain is still adapting to the injury then,' Bettger said.

Each stroke is different, so therapy must be tailor-made to that individual.

Kirk's stroke impacted the right side of his brain, which affected his left arm, left leg and the left side of his face. He underwent therapy that targeted the mobility of his arm. Speech therapy improved the challenges he had talking because of the impact the stroke had on his face. And then there was his intensive walking therapy.

The walking program was different than standard physical therapy, according to Hornby. In standard physical therapy, a patient does a lot of stretching and then goes through different physical steps like sitting and standing before they try and walk.

'In this case we said, 'Forget those stepping stones. Let's go ahead and walk him and all the posture and control will get better,' Hornby said. 'It was a novel approach and it worked.'

Kirk was an extremely determined patient. Not all are, according to Hornby.

'If people are not horribly determined, though, we have ways of tricking them. People are motivated differently. It's not unlike being a coach on a sports team—you just have to relate to a person and figure out what gets them moving, but the important thing is to get them moving.'

Physical rehabilitation can't cure a person completely. Kirk will continue to use a four-pronged cane like the one he used on the Capitol steps. He will use a wheelchair for longer distances. But Bettger said the attention paid to Kirk's story should help other stroke patients.

'After intense therapy, I've seen some people ski and run marathons,' Bettger said. 'Seeing immense progress like this should give people real hope.' "

To read the entire CNN story, visit:


View Senator Kirk's Rehabilitation Timeline

Senator Kirk's Care and Recovery

  • Sen. Kirk was treated on RIC’s 9th floor Patient Recovery Unit and AbilityLab™. Only patients who (1) have the kind of injury that responds to aggressive treatments and (2) are medically stable enough to participate in the rigorous, intense therapies are admitted to this specialized unit.
  • Rehabilitation in RIC’s new 9th floor’s AbilityLab is dramatically more rigorous. For instance, the national average number of steps taken in a standard, one-hour physical therapy session is 300-400 steps. (Lang 20009)[1]  However, the average number of steps taken in one hour of physical therapy in RIC’s AbilityLab™ is 3,000-4,000 steps (Moore et al 2010)[2].
  • After an intensive inpatient stay of three months, Sen. Kirk enrolled in a randomized, controlled, single-blinded clinical trial on the effects of large doses of high-intensity walking performed on a treadmill, over-ground, and on stairs. He also received outpatient therapies at RIC’s flagship hospital several times a week.
  • After the gait trial ended in May, Sen. Kirk continued with his recovery in RIC’s DayRehabilitation Center® in Wheeling receiving multiple, intense therapies and return-to-work therapies and support. 

Rehabilitation Timeline

February 10, 2012

Sen. Kirk is transferred to RIC to begin his inpatient rehabilitation on RIC’s brand new Patient Recovery Unit and AbilityLab™ which opened January 2012.

March 31, 2012 Sen. Kirk began walking without the support of a harness system.
April 27, 2012

Showing steadfast progress in his recovery, Kirk was discharged from inpatient care having walked more than 10 miles during physical therapy since arrival.

April 30, 2012

Sen. Kirk enrolled in a one-of-a-kind gait trial based on the theory that taking steps in a number of ways including over ground, on a treadmill and over stairs at a high intensity would bring better balance, endurance and better ability for community walking.

July 16, 2012

Sen. Kirk’s gait trial ended; he began multiple intensive therapies at RIC’s DayRehabilitation Center in Wheeling.

December 14, 2012

Sen. Kirk is discharged from RIC’s care.

[1] Lang CE, MacDonald JR, Reisman DS, Boyd L, Kimberley TJ, Schindler-Ivens SM, Hornby TG, Ross SA, Scheets PL. Observation of amounts of movement practice provided during stroke rehabilitation. Arch Phys Med Rehabil, 2009. 90(10):1692-8

[2] Moore JL, Roth EJ, Killian C, Hornby TG. Locomotor training improves the amount of daily stepping and gait efficiency in individuals post-stroke who have reached a plateau in recovery during conventional rehabilitation. Stroke.41(1):129-35, 2010. PMID: 19910547


About RIC's After-Stroke Rehabilitation and Recovery Program

  • RIC treats nearly 1,300 stroke inpatients each year.
  • 33% of RIC inpatient stroke patients are 55 years old or younger.
  • RIC holds six federal research designations including the ONLY federal Stroke Rehabilitation Research Training Center awarded by the U.S. Department of Education, National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research (NIDRR) and the National Center for Medical Rehabilitation Research focused on engineering for neurologic rehabilitation awarded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
  • RIC’s new Patient Recovery Unit and AbilityLab™ integrates researchers alongside clinicians that work together around each patient, innovating therapies and treatments for better, faster recoveries. This unique model of care is a pilot model for RIC’s new Research Hospital to open in 2016.

About the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago

The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) is the nation’s leading provider of comprehensive physical medicine and rehabilitation care to patients from around the world. Founded in 1953, RIC has been designated the “No. 1 Rehabilitation Hospital in America” by U.S. News & World Report every year since 1991. RIC sets the standard of care in the post-acute market through its innovative applied research and discovery programs, particularly in the areas of neuroscience, bionic medicine, musculoskeletal medicine and technology transfer. The AbilityLab — RIC’s new, state-of-the-art research hospital, will open in March 2017. 

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