I was once a pessimist. I’m not that man anymore. And that change started with a bout of misfortune and the sudden appearance of a little boy.
On a Saturday morning, January 21, 2012, my left arm went numb, and I started to feel dizzy. After I called my doctor, an ambulance arrived in front of my home, in Highland Park, Illinois. An MRI quickly revealed that the lining of my carotid artery had peeled off, preventing blood from flowing to my brain. The doctor said I had a stroke on the way and that we would just have to let it come. There was no stopping it. I stayed at Northwestern Memorial Hospital in Chicago for a few days, waiting for the stroke to hit as waves of paralysis came over me. As I slowly lost control of my body, I thought about how unbelievable it was. I was 52. I didn’t even know anyone who’d had this happen to him.
After the stroke (and the two operations that relieved the swelling in my brain), I was transferred to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago (RIC) on February 10. Though I had lost the use of my left arm and leg and couldn’t see out of my left eye, the only thought on my mind was that I needed to leave the hospital and return to my job serving the citizens of Illinois. But the reality was that I needed to relearn how to stand and see first. So there I was, with blood clots forming in my legs, held upright by a track and a harness, trying with all my strength to take one tiny step forward. I had always been a glass-half-empty kind of guy, and this just made me feel like recovery was impossible, like I would never again return to the Senate.
A few days after my first discouraging physical therapy session, my stepmother, Bev, came into my room with a letter. She had the job of poring over countless cards and notes from fellow politicians and strangers alike and was struck by one. It was a neatly typed letter, and the author was a nine-year-old boy named Jackson Cunningham from the central Illinois town of Champaign, my hometown. In the note, Jackson told me about the stroke he’d had only a year earlier. He, too, had been paralyzed on his left side and had made great strides at RIC. But, beyond telling me what he had lost, Jackson shared what I would gain. “Here’s some advice,” Jackson wrote. “Do not give up on yourself. All the hard work is worth it.”
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