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Sen. Mark Kirk likely faces lengthy recovery after stroke, doctor says

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In this Dec. 16, 2010, file photo, Sen. Mark Kirk, R-Ill., talks to the media on Capitol Hill in Washington.AP

Doctors who treated Sen. Mark Kirk, 52, after he suffered a stroke reported the senator has a ‘very good’ chance of making a full mental recovery – but signs indicate Kirk suffered a severe stroke that may require a lengthy recovery time, according to a neurologist.

Dr. Richard Fessler, a neurosurgeon at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, who treated Kirk, announced in a press conference Monday that Kirk suffered an ischemic stroke in the right side of the brain - meaning a blood clot temporarily stopped the flow of blood and oxygen to the brain.  The cause of the stroke has not yet been determined.

To relieve pressure stemming from the injury, Fessler said he removed a part of Kirk’s skull so that there would be room for the brain to swell without causing any further damage.

“This is a pretty significant procedure,” explained Dr. Joseph Broderick, a neurologist at the University of Cincinnati Neuroscience Institute and a fellow member of the American Academy of Neurology.  “Removing the skull is usually only done when you have a pretty big stroke.  It’s not used for a small stroke.”

Broderick, who did not treat Kirk, said recovery is “reasonably long” for people who suffer from large strokes, but the younger a patient is, the better the chances for recovery.  

“The brain can find other ways to get the job done – it has more plasticity when you’re young,” Broderick said.  “In general, 50 years old is considered relatively young in terms of the possibility of recovery.”

Because the stroke occurred in the right side of the brain, rather than the left, Fessler said most of Kirk’s lasting injuries were likely to be physical instead of mental – and chances of recovery from those injuries were ‘not great.’

“What that means is that it will affect his ability to move his left arm, possibly his left leg, and possibly have involved some facial paralysis,” Fessler said.

“Fortunately, the stroke was not on the left side of his brain in which case it would affect his ability to speak, understand, and think,” he added. “So we're very hopeful that when we get through all of his recovery, all of those functions will be intact and that he should be able to do very well.”

According to Broderick, there may also be the possibility that Kirk may no longer be able see out of his left eye – or even be able to pay attention to his left side at all.

“It depends on where the stroke is, and how large it was,” Broderick said.  “In some people, after a month or so, you wouldn’t even now they had a stroke, but on the other hand, it can also be extraordinarily devastating.”

Stroke, while more frequent among people aged 70 and older, is still not uncommon in younger people like Kirk.  

“Stroke is the fourth leading cause of death in the United States,” Broderick said.  Statistics from the American Heart Association indicate about 795,000 Americans each year suffer a new or recurrent stroke – meaning, on average, a stroke occurs every 40 seconds.

When it comes to treating strokes, “every minute counts,” Broderick said.  “Treatment needs to occur – reopening the artery – within the first four and a half hours.”

However, even within the first two hours, he added, the effectiveness of treatment can drop off dramatically.

Warning signs of stroke include the sudden onset of numbness or weakness on one side of the body, confusion, trouble speaking or understanding speech, trouble seeing in one or both eyes, trouble walking or balancing, and severe headache.  

“If you have signs or symptoms of a stroke, call 911 – not your doctor, not your neighbor,” Broderick said.  “Everybody needs to know this.”