The Healthcare Lessons Mark Kirk Learned From His Stroke

Sen. Mark Kirk's stroke rehab demonstrates to the Republican Party why healthcare coverage is so important.

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In this Nov. 4, 20102 file photo, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk, right, emerges from the 103rd floor stairwell at Chicago's Willis Tower during the RIC SkyRise Chicago event, a fundraiser for the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where Kirk is a patient. Nearly a year after a stroke left him barely able to move the left side of his body, U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk is expected to climb the 45 steps to the Senate’s front door this week _ a walk that’s significant not just for Illinois’ junior senator, but also for medical researchers and hundreds of thousands of stroke patients.

Walk a mile in someone else's shoes.

But how many of us actually do that? At least by choice?

Over a year ago Sen. Mark Kirk suffered a debilitating stroke. And his medical condition has sparked his interest in the experience of people on Medicaid. Kirk reminds me of the character William Hurt played in the movie The Doctor, a tale of a physician with no bedside manner who suddenly cares about his patients, once he himself becomes the patient, suffering with cancer.

[See a collection of political cartoons on healthcare.]

Well D.C. isn't Hollywood and Senator Kirk's stroke was not something manufactured by Hollywood studios. The Illinois Republican had an opportunity he now realizes not everyone who suffers a stroke has: the opportunity to get his life back. Senator Kirk had that opportunity this week as he returned to Capitol Hill for the first time in a year, joining the new 2013 Senate.

Kirk's illness made him realize that the unlimited medical care, access, and not to mention ability to have as many rehabilitation sessions as he needed to have a complete recovery from the stroke he suffered, is not available to most people, especially the poor—those who are on Medicaid. In the state of Illinois, if you are on Medicaid, you are only eligible for 11 rehab sessions following a stroke.

In an interview with the Chicago Sun Times, Senator Kirk said, "Had I been limited to that [referring to the 11 rehabilitation sessions], I would have had no chance to recover like I did. So unlike before suffering the stroke, I'm much more focused on Medicaid and what my fellow citizens face...I will look much more carefully at the Illinois Medicaid program to see how my fellow citizens are being cared for who have no income and if they suffer from a stroke."

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Is Medicaid Expansion Good for the States?]

Senator Kirk has, by no choice of his own, walked a mile in another's shoes...but not entirely. As a senator, he benefits from the very best medical care. He had undoubtedly the best doctors and access—and that access included unlimited rehabilitation sessions—as many as he needed. Each of us is unique and individual—our bodies respond differently one from another, even if we share the same illness or injury.

Although it is admirable that Senator Kirk has woken up to the reality that so many Americans face daily and struggle with so frequently, it's sad that it took a stroke for him to come to this realization. So we must ponder the question: Does every GOP member of the House and the Senate need to become ill or have a family member become ill to fully understand that it is not only a right, but a necessity that any American have access to not only healthcare, but more so, proper healthcare? What type of society are we if only the rich are allowed to survive such things as a stroke? Or dare I say, only a politician?

Senator Kirk realized this. I know there are those critics out there who feel that Kirk is tapping into a group of potential voters that the GOP has largely ignored, and the GOP largely voted against legislation which would help this group of people.

[See 2012: The Year in Cartoons.]

As a liberal, a progressive, and a Democrat, who is married to a physician and who believes that all of us are truly created equal and should have equal access to the best medical care possible, it saddens me that it seems only when it affects an individual or someone they love, especially those politicians on the right, that they can see what we on the left have been speaking of: fairness.

It isn't fair that a senator has a stroke and returns to work one year later, when so many in Illinois and elsewhere may not be able to return to work or their lives as they knew them; and some don't survive at all.

Senator Kirk at one time, as his colleagues, never looked at the people behind the term 'patient,' for they were just numbers to slash in cutting spending. Let's hope that those in the GOP don't need to suffer as Senator Kirk did to come to the realization that people hurting and in pain are more than numbers on a page.

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