Senator Mark Kirk
© Bill Zars/Daily Herald, Chicago


U.S. Sen. Mark Kirk says relearning to walk was a frustrating, exhausting process that came with a breakthrough moment.
Illinois Senator Mark Kirk has wrestled with lots of devilish political issues during his 28-year political career, but after suffering a stroke one year ago, he claims he had a very different experience: an encounter with angels.

The Republican senator was recovering from a massive stroke in the right side of his brain at Northwestern Memorial Hospital's Intensive Care Unit in Chicago when Kirk said three angels visited him, the Chicago area's Daily Herald reported.

Standing at the foot of his hospital bed, the angels, Kirk said, asked him, "You want to come with us?"

"No," Kirk said he told them matter-of-factly. "I'll hold off."

Kirk, 53, has spent the past year undergoing intensive therapy to help him regain his ability to walk and perform other basic functions. Kirk's mind, according to his surgeon Dr. Richard Fessler, is still very active. "His thought process is normal, and his mental state remains sharp," Fessler told the Daily Herald.

Kirk now joins an estimated 8 million Americans who claim to have received celestial visitors or had some other type of near-death experience (NDE): The congressman sensed he was close to death in the days following his stroke. "A thing goes off in your head that this is the end," Kirk told the Daily Herald.

Despite their mystical associations, many researchers believe NDEs may have a rational explanation based on the science of brain functioning. Out-of-body experiences, during which people believe they're floating above their physical body, are common during NDEs and can be triggered by stimulating the brain's right temporoparietal junction, according to a study detailed in 2005 in the journal The Neuroscientist.

Another common vision during NDEs is the sensation of moving toward a bright light, which also occurs in up to 25 percent of heart attack survivors. The cause in both cases, researchers now believe, may be a lack of oxygen to the brain: Euphoria, a sense of peace and moving "toward the light" are common symptoms of oxygen deprivation, according to a 2010 study published in the medical journal Critical Care.

Last year, researchers at the Out-Of-Body Experience Research Center in Los Angeles reported success in training volunteers to "separate" from their bodies and float through a dark tunnel toward a bright light. The researchers, whose work has not been published in a peer-reviewed journal, believe this is further evidence that NDEs are a product of brain functioning, not celestial intervention.

Kirk, however, is committed to keeping both feet on the ground, particularly as he makes the most challenging walk of his life: climbing the 45 steps up to the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., when he returns to his Senate office this month.

"There's going to be a big crowd, and you can bet I'm going to be in it," Kirk told the Daily Herald.