WASHINGTON - The cheers and applause for Sen. Mark Kirk's triumphant return on Thursday nearly a year after a major stroke began almost as soon as he was spotted on the U.S. Capitol steps.
"Yay, Mark," Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, could be heard saying as dozens of senators and members of the House stood nearby to watch the Illinois Republican's climb. Hundreds of tourists and other well-wishers gathered across the street, also cheering on the senator's every move.
Kirk, first elected in 2010 to the Senate seat once held by President Obama, was greeted with shouts of "Bravo!" as he made it to the second floor of the Capitol about 20 minutes later.
Last January, Kirk suffered what is known as an ischemic stroke. It affected the right side of his brain, and he had to relearn how to walk through intensive therapy at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago.
Dr. Benjamin Anyanwu, a neurologist with Forsyth Medical Center, said key warning signs of a stroke are a drooping face, arm weakness, and speech difficulty. If you experience these symptoms, you should call 9-1-1.
On Thursday, using a cane with his right hand and wearing a brace on his left leg, Kirk climbed up the steps to the Senate's front door with the help of Vice President Biden and Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va. Every now and then, he'd turn around to wave at his fellow members of Congress, and he also got a hug from Sen. Kay Hagan, D-N.C.
Kirk was officially welcomed by Biden, who was there to administer the oath of office to new senators in the 113th Congress.
"You got all day, pal," Biden, who suffered a brain aneurysm in 1988, could be heard saying as Kirk began the climb. "It took me seven months to make these steps."
Kirk's recovery has been heralded as an example for stroke victims and other people who have suffered brain injuries.
"The significance of the senator's climb up the stairs is tremendous, particularly to help inspire the minds and activities of others who suffered strokes," said Dr. Elliot Roth, medical director at the Rehabilitation Institute unit where Kirk received his care.
Kirk's care-givers described aggressive, individualized treatment -- almost like boot camp -- that included several therapy sessions each day. Michael Klonowski, who was Kirk's primary therapist in Chicago, said he was more emotional than he thought he would be as he saw his former patient make the climb.
"Seeing what he's done is absolutely inspiring," Klonowski said. "I've seen him go up tons of stairs. ... It was really something to see him do what he did today."
Rep. Tammy Duckworth, D-Ill., an Iraq combat veteran who lost both of her legs and the use of an arm in battle, stood on her prosthetic legs on the Capitol steps to cheer on Kirk. She hailed his achievement as one for all people with disabilities.
Kirk, 53, served in the House for 10 years before winning a bruising battle for the Senate against Democrat Alexi Giannoulias. He is a former intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy and was deployed twice to Afghanistan as part of the reserves.