CHICAGO — Sen. Mark Kirk was doing better than expected after suffering a stroke and undergoing emergency surgery, his neurosurgeon said Tuesday, noting the Illinois Republican was answering questions and even asking for his Blackberry.
Dr. Richard Fessler, who performed surgery on Kirk at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, said the 52-year-old "is doing very well" but that the road to recovery will be long.
"Everything is where we want it to be," Fessler said.
Kirk's stroke over the weekend affected his left side, particularly movement of his left arm and his face. Surgeons removed a piece of his skull Sunday to alleviate pressure from swelling and Kirk remained in intensive care. Doctors said he was expected to make a full mental recovery, but may not ever regain full movement, even after a long rehabilitation.
Experts and other politicians who have been through similar medical situations said Kirk's rehabilitation will be grueling, could take years and his movement might never be the same.
It's unclear when Kirk will be able to return to work, but doctors said he appeared eager to do so.
"He asked for his Blackberry yesterday so he's ready to go back to work," Fessler said. However, he added, doctors did not give it to him.
Fessler said Tuesday that Kirk, who is right-handed, was able to move his left side "very little." Kirk was speaking with a slight slur and has some facial paralysis, which doctors hope will be addressed with rehabilitation.
Doctors were able to remove a breathing tube and allow the senator to breathe on his own and Kirk appeared very aware of his surroundings and what had happened to him, Fessler said.
Fessler said Kirk will remain in intensive care for four to five days while swelling subsides. After that, they'll set a date to put back the 4-by-8-inch piece of Kirk's skull that was removed.
The senator likely will then need weeks and perhaps months of inpatient physical rehabilitation. Doctors said it was too early to tell how long rehab would take.
Kirk, who won President Barack Obama's former Senate seat for the Republican Party in 2010, is a Naval reserve commander who has to pass physicals each year and is an avid swimmer. Doctors said he had a healthy lifestyle and reasonable diet.
Getting him back to that level will be difficult, especially as a patient lying in bed loses muscle mass each day, experts said. Rehabilitation can involve strenuous exercise, electric stimulation on the muscles and psychological help.
"I call this boot camp," said Dr. James Young, chairman of physical medicine and rehabilitation at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago. "And I'm not just saying that. I mean, this is hard. This is hard on everybody."
He said that for many who suffer strokes, regaining their balance is difficult because the two sides of the body are never quite the same.
It's a road familiar to former Alabama Lt. Gov. Lucy Baxley, who had a similar stroke to Kirk in November 2006 about three weeks after losing the race for governor. The stroke left the 74-year-old unable to move the left side of her body from her shoulder down to her foot and she has to use a wheelchair.
"My doctors said that long period of continuous stress might have been a contributing factor to me having the stroke," she said of the 18-month campaign.
Tests showed Kirk had a tear in the carotid artery on the right side of his neck, but Fessler said Tuesday the cause of the stroke is unknown and may never be clear. He said diet and stress did not appear to be behind Kirk's stroke.
Baxley struggled with a loss of balance and rigorous rehabilitation that included painful stretching exercises for her leg. Six years later, she still has home visits from physical therapists three times a week to help her try to walk with a cane and exercise her left leg and arm.
"A lot of it is, what they teach you how to do, you need to do a lot of it on your own. And that's hard to do, because it hurts," she said.
Two years after the stroke, she went back into politics and was elected president of the Alabama Public Service Commission, an office for which she is seeking re-election this year.
Once a vigorous campaigner, she had to scale back her travel and appearances.
Kirk's staff said his office would remain open for constituent services. Gov. Pat Quinn – who would appoint a temporary replacement if the stroke did not allow Kirk to finish his term – said he expected the senator to make a full recovery.
Meanwhile, colleagues noted his absence. Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who Kirk had planned to sit with at Obama's State of the Union address Tuesday night, said he'd leave Kirk's seat empty to honor him.
Associated Press writer Jason Keyser contributed to this report.
Sophia Tareen can be reached at http://twitter.com/sophiatareen