Mark KirkUPDATE: The Sun-Times reported Tuesday that Kirk is awake and alert, “showing promising signs in his recovery.” Fessler, the surgeon, was quoted in the story as saying that Kirk’s lifestyle was “very healthy,” and he didn’t think “this event had anything to do with either stress or diet.”

With Senator Mark Kirk in recovery following a three-hour surgery resulting from a weekend stroke, his ex-wife—whose amicable divorce from Kirk was finalized in 2009—described the 52-year-old junior senator as being “into politics, 500 percent,” and rarely slowing down to take care of himself.

Having written about Kirk during the 2010 elections, I called Kimberly Vertolli upon hearing news of the senator’s stroke. The lawyer and former Naval Intelligence officer, who split from Kirk after eight years of marriage, was in a Staples store shopping with her father when I reached her earlier today. She was shocked to hear about her ex-husband’s stroke, and I hated to be the one to deliver the news. But a few minutes into our conversation, she said that, sadly, she was not surprised about the senator’s health.

Vertolli described a man who had difficulty sleeping and suffered from panic attacks, relentless levels of stress, and debilitating migraines that required him to retreat into a dark room. “There were a lot of indications I saw that told me that he had to slow down or alter his behavior or lifestyle,” she said. “He doesn’t take care of himself and doesn’t take breaks. To him, fun is editing papers; he has to always be doing something.” Vertolli recalled that on their honeymoon to Italy and France, Kirk—then in the first of five terms in the U.S. House—did relax, but “pretty much slept the entire time.”

She recalled her ex-husband as “not a person who places fitness as a priority.”  He belongs to a health club in Lake Forest, she said, but he only went every few months. When Vertolli went out for a run in the morning, she went alone, as Kirk was “out of breath after the simplest thing.” She also mentioned a “terrible diet,” heavy on muffins, cookies, ice cream, donuts, and red meat. “He ate what was put in front of him,” she said.  He didn’t have time to prepare food or to shop. But, she added, he never smoked, and he “barely drank—socially, that’s it.” Common risk factors for a stroke include physical inactivity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight.

Since 2002, Vertolli said, Kirk was under the care of Bannockburn cardiologist Jay Alexander and had regular physicals through the Navy—Kirk is in the Naval Reserves—and Congress. A call to Alexander was not returned by post time.

The Chicago Tribune reported that after dizziness sent Kirk to Lake Forest Hospital on Saturday, doctors discovered a “carotid artery dissection in the right side of his neck.” He was transferred to Northwestern, where neurosurgeon Richard Fessler removed a four-inch-by-eight-inch piece of his skull to “relieve swelling around his brain.” Fessler reported later Monday that the surgery was successful, and that, while Kirk is expected to have some paralysis on his left side, the parts of the brain that control speaking, understanding, and thinking were not affected. According to the Trib, Fessler said he remains “very hopeful when he gets through all of his recovery, all of his [mental] functions will be intact.”  

A call to Kate Dickens, Kirk’s deputy chief of staff, was not returned by post time.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune