By Eric Johnson
CHICAGO (Reuters) - Senator Mark Kirk of Illinois, who suffered a stroke over the weekend and had part of his skull removed to relieve brain swelling, is alert and talking but has a long recovery in store, his doctor said on Tuesday.
The 52-year-old Republican had breathing tubes removed and responds to questions, sometimes in longer sentences when not under sedation, said Dr. Richard Fessler of Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
"He was asking for his Blackberry, so he's thinking about communicating and thinking about work," Fessler told reporters. Doctors refused the request for his phone.
Fessler said Kirk's recovery would likely be "a long haul," beginning with a week in the hospital's intensive care unit so doctors can keep an eye on his brain swelling.
Surgeons will then replace a 4- by 8-inch section of his skull that was removed to prevent damage due to the swelling. After that, Kirk will face a period of rehabilitation at the hospital.
Kirk, a Naval Reserve intelligence officer, was slurring his words due to paralysis on the left side of his face, which should improve with therapy, Fessler said.
He suffered an ischemic stroke, caused by a blocked carotid artery, that affected the right side of his brain, which controls the left side of his body.
Fessler said it was not apparent what caused Kirk's stroke, whose symptoms began on Saturday with white flecks in his vision and head pain. Kirk checked himself into a suburban Chicago hospital, then was moved to Northwestern in Chicago when his condition worsened.
"I don't think this event had anything to do with either stress or his diet," Fessler said. "It is just one of those unfortunate disasters that happen to people sometimes."
"He had to pass his Navy physical twice a year. He has to be in reasonably good shape," he said.
Kirk, viewed as a moderate Republican, won President Barack Obama's former Senate seat in 2010. A native of Champaign, Illinois, Kirk was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2000 representing the northern suburbs of Chicago.
(Additional reporting by Andrew Stern; Editing by Cynthia Johnston)