On the eve of his long-awaited return to the Senate, Mark Kirk said he once doubted he would fully recover from the stroke that sidelined him a year ago.
"There was a time with my left leg when my doctors said, 'It will bear weight,' and I thought, 'You know, I'm the owner of this leg. Yeah, right. It'll never bear weight.' They were right and I was wrong," Kirk said Tuesday in a sit-down interview in Washington.
The massive stroke limited movement on the left side of his body and affected his speech. He spent months learning to walk and climb stairs, along with speech therapy. He credits his staff at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago for pushing him when he thought he couldn't do it.
Kirk needed three brain surgeries to help him heal. At one point he was so close to death he recalled angels speaking to him.
"I felt like there were three angels in the room. And, interestingly, they had New York accents, probably because the last movie I'd seen was on Channel 11, was the original 'Ocean's 11,'" he said.
Kirk now speaks more slowly and deliberately. He also uses a four-pronged cane and may need a wheelchair. When he returns to work, he is expected to have a scaled back schedule and won't keep the same busy travel schedule he once did.
He said the stroke gave him a renewed sense of purpose, deepened his faith and the experience made him vow "to never, ever give up."
After a year away from work, Kirk said he realizes he was lucky to receive the care he did. While he still does not favor Obamacare, his recovery has given him a new perspective.
"On the Medicaid side, how we address citizens of Illinois who suffer from a stroke ... working so that my fellow citizens have the opportunities that I had," he said.
The 53-year-old Republican said he intends to climb the 45 steps to the Senate's front door. It's a a walk that's significant not just for Illinois' junior senator, but also for medical researchers and hundreds of thousands of stroke patients.
"I've been dreaming about this day for months," he said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.