Illinois Sen. Kirk returns to Senate a year after stroke - Los Angeles Local News | FOX 11 LA KTTV

PHOTOS: Sen. Kirk returns to work in Washington, climbs Capitol steps

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CHICAGO (FOX 32 News) -

U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk said he often visualized climbing the 45 steps of the U.S. Capitol as a source of inspiration during his months of grueling physical therapy after suffering a major stroke last year.

Kirk accomplished that goal with cheers on Thursday morning when he returned to the Senate. Vice President Joe Biden helped him as he slowly made his way up.

In an interview with the Daily Herald, the Illinois Republican called the stroke "the hardest thing I've ever overcome and the biggest lesson in life I have ever learned by a country mile."

The massive stroke limited movement on the left side of his body and affected his speech. He spent months learning to walk and climb stairs, along with speech therapy, at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.

Kirk, 53, now speaks more slowly and deliberately. He also uses a four-pronged cane and may need a wheelchair. He is expected to have a scaled back schedule and won't keep the same busy travel schedule he once did.

He said the stroke gave him a renewed sense of purpose, deepened his faith and the experience made him vow "to never, ever give up."

"I would say that I definitely became much more religious," Kirk told the newspaper. "They say there are no atheists in foxholes, and this stroke put me into a very deep foxhole. Yet, that feeling of faith sustained me, so I have no feelings of anger or regret."

Kirk briefly returned to his Senate office in Washington last month for the first time since the stroke and met with aides. During his rehabilitation, he held video conferences with staffers and kept in contact through email and phone.

Doctors have said that Kirk made excellent progress during his rehabilitation, which included grueling physical workouts as part of experimental therapy. In November he climbed 37 floors inside Chicago's Willis Tower as part of a charity event.

Kirk's doctors accompanied him to the Capitol for his first day back.

"The significance of the senator's climb up the stairs is tremendous particularly to help inspire and to stimulate the thinking and activity of other people with strokes and their families and all those people who are affected by it," Kirk's doctor, Elliot Roth, M.D. said.

Kirk's office kept the public updated on his progress with video updates and statements. He also campaigned for fellow Republicans leading up to the Nov. 6 election.

"My hope was my recovery would be easily understood and very public and very transparent," Kirk said. "Most times the public figures cover up the big problem they have."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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