It wasn’t the way I expected my day to go, but as soon as I’d felt dizzy and experienced numbness in my left arm that Saturday morning, Jan. 21, 2012, I knew I was in trouble. An MRI soon discovered that the inner lining of my carotid artery had peeled away. The dissected artery was blocking the blood flow to my brain, putting me in imminent danger of a stroke.
Anticoagulants kept my blood pressure down, and for a few hours I seemed to stabilize. But then the numbness and tingling on my left side worsened, and my vision got blurry.
Jay, who had met me at the emergency room at Northwestern Lake Forest Hospital, ordered me transferred to Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago, which has a certified stroke center. It was on the way there that he gave me my chances and assured me that, given my age and health, my chances for recovery from a stroke were good.
I was in my hospital bed when the waves came and I began to lose control of my body and mind. Unbelievable, I thought. I’m only 52. I didn’t even know anyone who’d had a stroke.
More than a week later, I regained a confused consciousness in the intensive care unit. I knew I was lying in a bed. I thought someone was sharing the bed with me, but it was my own leg. I vaguely remember a party the ICU staff had for the Super Bowl and the smell of the food they brought.
I had two operations to relieve the swelling in my brain and remained at Northwestern Memorial until Feb. 10, when I was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC). In all that time, I remember only one rational thought: I needed to get out of there and back to reality, back to my job serving the people of Illinois, which has always been the greatest ambition of my life.
I still worried I would die. I dreamed that three angels came into my room and wanted me to go with them, but I said no because I knew where I was, on the ninth floor of the RIC, and why I was there: to begin a long, difficult recovery from an ischemic stroke.
When you’ve been flat on your back for weeks, your circulatory system doesn’t respond well the first time you try to get up. The therapists at the RIC were prepared for that. They strapped me on a table and tipped it upright. I passed out immediately. When I came to, I realized how hard a recovery I faced if I couldn’t even stand up.
I had blood clots in my leg that were treated with anticoagulants. I asked a doctor what would happen to me if one of the clots broke loose. “You could have a pulmonary embolism,” he answered, “and you would die.”
At best, I thought it unlikely that I would recover enough to return to the Senate. I had always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy, a believer in Murphy’s Law.
The staff at the RIC consider that kind of attitude debilitating, and they don’t tolerate it in their patients. My physical therapist, Mike Klonowski, was a tyrant and, God bless him, a great inspiration. The stroke had severely impaired my left leg, but Mike expected me to walk again. He would teach me how to do it, or we would both die trying.