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Kirk climbs 41 stories of Willis Tower for charity

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CHICAGO (Sun-Times Media Wire) -

Just before U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) ascended the stairs of the Willis Tower, as part of the annual Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago's fundraiser on Sunday, he said there are disparities in rehabilitation and overall care for stroke survivors.

A recovering stroke victim, Kirk called for support of his legislative stroke agenda. Earlier this year he introduced three bills that would expand access to quality rehabilitation care, create a national standard of care and highlight job resources for individuals needing help returning to their professions.

Kirk received intensive therapy at RIC.

"About 900,000 Americans a year will suffer from stroke, and about a third of them will not return to work," he said at a press conference before his climb Sunday. "For those 300,000 people, I don't want to throw them away. I don't want them to feel like they've been thrown away, and I think this stroke agenda will help us return many, many more Americans to work."

Dr. Joanne Smith, president and CEO of RIC, said many private insurers don't offer "good access to rehabilitation," and Kirk noted stroke victims on Medicaid only have access to four rehabilitation sessions.

The Chicago Sun-Times reported in January that according to Kirk's medical team, he had at that time undergone about 100 physical therapy sessions, many of them part of a clinical research trial at RIC.

"In my case . . . it's obvious I had a better shot at getting back to work," he said Sunday.

Kirk, who retired in May as a Naval Reserve intelligence officer, said he continues rehab at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and that he has dramatically increased his walking speed.

Co-sponsors of the stroke agenda bills include Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) and Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), who several years ago underwent brain surgery following cerebral bleeding.

Kirk was among 3,000 participants in SkyRise Chicago — a 103-floor stair climb to the top of Willis Tower.

Climb participants include many current and former patients. Last year, Kirk completed 37 stories. This year, he climbed 41 stories. Asked what inspirational message he's hoping to send to other stroke victims, he said, "If I can do it, then anybody can do it."

Young and old participated in the event, appearing drenched in sweat as they reached the summit to the cheers of supporters. Some wore braces. One woman emerged through the 103rd floor doorway after traversing the stairs with a prosthetic leg.

Among the group making what for many was a grueling trek was 34-year-old Chicagoan Chip Battoe, who suffered a spinal cord injury seven months ago when a car struck his motor scooter. He said he was told "I would never walk again, and I would be confined to a wheelchair."

Battoe completed about two-thirds of the climb with the support of crutches. He climbed from the bottom to the 33rd floor and from the 66th to the top. It took him five hours and 45 minutes, before he reached the end, he said.

"It felt pretty awesome. During the last 40 floors, I was in quite a lot of pain," he shared. "But it was okay. It was totally worth it. My therapist and my wife pushed me to finish, and I'm really glad they did."

He saw Kirk along the way.

"He passed by when I was going up," Battoe said. "It was nice to see him."

Nineteen-year-old Vince Carroll, who suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident in 2012, was joined in his climb by family and friends sporting T-shirts that read "The InVINCEables."

His mom, Victoria McHugh, was among them. She said she was told after the accident, it was likely Vince would never walk or talk again.

"It was easier than I expected," Carroll said after he completed the full-climb in 45 minutes.

Last year's event raised more than $1 million for RIC, said a spokeswoman, who couldn't immediately say how much was raised this year.

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