Carol Felsenthal
On politics

Mark Kirk’s Sudden Health Scare—Some Background from His Ex-Wife

With Senator Mark Kirk in recovery following a three-hour surgery resulting from a weekend stroke, his ex-wife—whose amicable divorce from Kirk was finalized in 2009—described the 52-year-old junior senator as being “into politics, 500 percent,” and rarely slowing down to take care of himself…

Mark KirkUPDATE: The Sun-Times reported Tuesday that Kirk is awake and alert, “showing promising signs in his recovery.” Fessler, the surgeon, was quoted in the story as saying that Kirk’s lifestyle was “very healthy,” and he didn’t think “this event had anything to do with either stress or diet.”

With Senator Mark Kirk in recovery following a three-hour surgery resulting from a weekend stroke, his ex-wife—whose amicable divorce from Kirk was finalized in 2009—described the 52-year-old junior senator as being “into politics, 500 percent,” and rarely slowing down to take care of himself.

Having written about Kirk during the 2010 elections, I called Kimberly Vertolli upon hearing news of the senator’s stroke. The lawyer and former Naval Intelligence officer, who split from Kirk after eight years of marriage, was in a Staples store shopping with her father when I reached her earlier today. She was shocked to hear about her ex-husband’s stroke, and I hated to be the one to deliver the news. But a few minutes into our conversation, she said that, sadly, she was not surprised about the senator’s health.

Vertolli described a man who had difficulty sleeping and suffered from panic attacks, relentless levels of stress, and debilitating migraines that required him to retreat into a dark room. “There were a lot of indications I saw that told me that he had to slow down or alter his behavior or lifestyle,” she said. “He doesn’t take care of himself and doesn’t take breaks. To him, fun is editing papers; he has to always be doing something.” Vertolli recalled that on their honeymoon to Italy and France, Kirk—then in the first of five terms in the U.S. House—did relax, but “pretty much slept the entire time.”

She recalled her ex-husband as “not a person who places fitness as a priority.”  He belongs to a health club in Lake Forest, she said, but he only went every few months. When Vertolli went out for a run in the morning, she went alone, as Kirk was “out of breath after the simplest thing.” She also mentioned a “terrible diet,” heavy on muffins, cookies, ice cream, donuts, and red meat. “He ate what was put in front of him,” she said.  He didn’t have time to prepare food or to shop. But, she added, he never smoked, and he “barely drank—socially, that’s it.” Common risk factors for a stroke include physical inactivity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and being overweight.

Since 2002, Vertolli said, Kirk was under the care of Bannockburn cardiologist Jay Alexander and had regular physicals through the Navy—Kirk is in the Naval Reserves—and Congress. A call to Alexander was not returned by post time.

The Chicago Tribune reported that after dizziness sent Kirk to Lake Forest Hospital on Saturday, doctors discovered a “carotid artery dissection in the right side of his neck.” He was transferred to Northwestern, where neurosurgeon Richard Fessler removed a four-inch-by-eight-inch piece of his skull to “relieve swelling around his brain.” Fessler reported later Monday that the surgery was successful, and that, while Kirk is expected to have some paralysis on his left side, the parts of the brain that control speaking, understanding, and thinking were not affected. According to the Trib, Fessler said he remains “very hopeful when he gets through all of his recovery, all of his [mental] functions will be intact.”  

A call to Kate Dickens, Kirk’s deputy chief of staff, was not returned by post time.


Photograph: Chicago Tribune


3 years ago
Posted by mkr

My husband had his annual physical late this afternoon and I went with him. We(the doctor and us) were discussing the tragic stroke of Senator Kirk. The doctor said, "He didn't have a wife riding his rear." But it sounds like even when he did have a wife reprimanding him about his unhealthful lifestyle, he didn't listen. Too bad that it took a stroke to get him to slow down. I met Senator Kirk shortly after his divorce and strongly encouraged him to marry again as soon as possible and have children, not only for the blessing of family life, but because married men are statistically healthier than single men are. He seemed to think that my advice was humorous. Too bad. At the end of life, his constituents won't be there for him; hopefully he will have children there for him. Maybe if he's lucky (and wise), he can find a woman who will love him (remarry Kimberly Vertolli??), who will bear children for the two of them. Then he can enjoy the blessing of a good wife, a few children, have home-cooked dinners most nights(like the simple meal of crockpot Senate bean soup I made for my husband today) and enjoy living more in the slow lane than the fast lane. And his wife can ride his rear for the rest of his life, and that would be a good thing for him.

3 years ago
Posted by LS24

I don't know who's more despicable: the author of this article or the ex-wife for saying all these things about a man who just suffered a stroke. Are you attempting to blame the victim or just can't help yourself from portraying a republican in a bad light? I don't remember Harry Reid getting this kind of treatment when he suffered a similar stroke.

3 years ago
Posted by mkr

Though the writer of the article and Senator Kirk's ex-wife are blunt, I don't see the article in the same light as LS24 does. I see the comments as warnings to others that a Type A personality has its health risks, and that making healthy eating and fitness a priority are important. His arteries could have been in perfect condition, however, because his stroke was caused by carotid artery dissection, which is often caused by neck trauma, which he did not report. I just read that stress can be a causal factor for carotid artery dissection, though it really is a mystery why this medical condition happens particularly to individuals in their 50's. Certainly when something like this happens to anyone, it makes one reevaluate one's priorities. Like 99.99% of us, in a century or perhaps a bit longer, Senator Kirk won't be remembered by anyone except some academic doing research, or if he does have children, he will be remembered by his descendents. I hope devoting all of his life to politics during the short time he has on this earth has given him a lot of satisfaction, because he has made a great sacrifice in terms of his own personal family life, by denying himself wife and children, to do so.

3 years ago
Posted by GOP1

With regard to Ms. Vertolli's comments on her former husband's health condition she would have done well by either a polite "no comment" or "I wish him well". Her comments have bitterness written all over them.

3 years ago
Posted by AparnaV

I was disheartened when I read this piece on Senator Mark Kirk. His ex wife essentially is disparaging this man who is currently suffering from a serious health condition and in the hospital. Is it good journalism to report on an ex wife's perspective on how he had "panic attacks" (quite personal and sensitive mental health history which may not even be accurate) and her opinion that he did not take care of himself because he ate red meat and couldn't keep up with her when she ran? The author of this article and the ex wife seem insensitive and unkind to another human being in his time of vulnerability.

3 years ago
Posted by veritas

What a sad day for journalism when trash like this gets passed off as news. If the author chooses to be a tawdry purveyor of irrelevant personal information with a touch of malice intended, why doesn't she get a job at the National Enquirer? And take her malicious friend, the ex-wife, with her. Shame on Chicago magazine!

3 years ago
Posted by ellbell

I agree with you, LS24. It sounds completely like sour grapes on her part. Her comments were rude and unfeeling. Just this morning, Kirk's doctor had to correct a few of the comments she made.

3 years ago
Posted by 100480

MKR I hope that you or your loved ones never experience a serious stroke and have someone speak publicly and participate in a article that is classless and cruel and blame you ...the man is in a coma. From one woman to another Mrs. Vertolli you come across as an angry bitter classless woman. As for Chicago will not get a penny of my hard earned money as I would never subsribe to a magazine that would stoop this low. ?

3 years ago

I thought it was a good and timely scoop. You want journalists to censor the news because some might find it in bad taste?

3 years ago
Posted by nacho

No doubt snarky ex was caught off guard. She will rue the day that she spoke so candidly with this reporter...must have been in shock. She does come off quite poorly by sharing his private health history and intimate details. By the way, my husband slept a lot on our honeymoon, too, and it was because of sex, sweetie, not because he was so tired! Since the newly-wed Kirks had honeymooned in Europe he could have also been tired from jet-lag. Give Mark a break! Also, author Carol, you neglected to mention in paragraph four that one of the top risk factors for a stroke (from Mayo link) is family history. Heredity plays a big part but this article skews it all towards the fault of Kirk. Whatever the reason (Twinkie defense?), let's be pulling for him rather than berating his bachelor habits. My next door neighbor says there is a reason an "ex" is an "ex." The imagination doesn't have to work overtime to consider what Senator Kirk had to put up while he was hitched. I'm feeling more sorry for him as the day grows long.

3 years ago
Posted by mkr

I've read everyone's comments, and despite what I've written, I am in agreement with those who thought the indiscreet comments, both by ex-wife and author, were in poor taste. I have seen his ex-wife be indiscreet in another instance on television, so this may be the way she is. Discretion is learned by experience and improves with age. Nonetheless, his ex-wife stated in another interview within the past year that she still loved Senator Mark Kirk, and I hope that she, like the rest of his family most certainly will, demonstrates this love when he needs it most, which is now and in the coming weeks and months.

Most people, including myself, did not realize that a stroke can be caused by a tear to the wall of the carotid artery, resulting in a blood clot. Most people, including myself, thought that lifestyle or age caused strokes, and that strokes didn't happen to otherwise healthy and relatively young adults, such as the Senator is. So this experience of the Senator's is a disaster for him, which he can hopefully overcome with rehabilitation, but it has been an education for the rest of us.

Having said the above, I maintain my belief that being a work-aholic is detrimental to anyone's health, and it appears that the Senator has been a work-aholic, and I also maintain my belief that if the Senator had a wife, and children, it would be beneficial to him for many reasons.

3 years ago
Posted by Carol Felsenthal

Since I posted the above reaction yesterday from Kimberly Vertolli, Sen. Mark Kirk's ex-wife, to the news of his stroke, we have received comments/complaints from readers who are upset that during the height of Sen. Kirk's serious illness we would post an interview with his ex-wife commenting on what she described as his unhealthy lifestyle.

When Vertolli and I spoke, there was admiration in her voice, but also sadness as, in her opinion, this kind of schedule was not healthy.

Vertolli was clearly identified in the post as Kirk's ex-wife, and readers, I would think, understand that that fact carries with it the potential for some bitterness. However, I have found her, since I started to speak to her in the summer of 2010 when she was volunteering on her ex-husband's campaign, to be a reliable source on his life, family, and career.

She has repeatedly characterized him to me as a dedicated public servant, too dedicated in that he does not relax or take time to take care of himself. It was that message that she was trying to convey, and I quoted her as such.

All in all, I saw this as an opportunity both to give a more personal perspective on the senator¹s illness and as a means to deliver some cautionary news about the role that stress and overwork can play in illness. As I was interviewing Vertolli and writing up the interview, I recalled the news coverage of the death by heart attack of Mayor Harold Washington and the lessons about diet and exercise that millions took from that. I also recalled the thousands of women, myself included, who picked up the telephone and made appointments for mammograms after the news broke of Nancy Reagan's breast cancer.

3 years ago
Posted by mkr

I am a religious person, and believe that God can use everything that we experience, even tragedies like Senator Kirk's stroke, for good. I was just thinking about my high school counselor Paul Meyer of Kankakee, who died a few months ago. He was a paraplegic since he was in his late teens, when he contracted polio, and he advocated for the disabled up until his recent death. Maybe Senator Kirk can be a new spokesman for the disabled, as it sounds like even with rehabilitation he may have permanent paralysis on his left side. An inspiring article was written about Mr. Meyer in the January 2011 Olivet news magazine, which can be read at:

3 years ago
Posted by TSD

Despite what the writer of the article said she was intending to convey it was anything but. If the ex really loved the senator she would never have said what she did. She simply could have said she was praying for him and wished him the best - like she did when he announced his race for the senate seat, "he will make a great senator, I totally support him." Ms F you practice the worst kind of journalism - shame on you.

3 years ago
Posted by nina

What kind of shoddy "journalism" is this? Do some fact checking first--their divorce was not "amicable" and the type of medical event he had is not related to "stress and overwork." Really--with so much content on the internet, this was a waste of time reading...

3 years ago
Posted by Bonnie M

Whenever politicians have health issues of this sort, it's ALWAYS a good learning experience for the public. After all, they are supposed to be role models and leaders and when they have health issues, we can all learn from them... I learned a lot about heart attacks when Mayor Harold Washington had his fatal heart attack 25 years ago... And I have learned much from other high-profile leaders who have had health problems through the years!!! When things of this sort happen, it should motivate people to eat better and exercise! I hope Sen. Kirk recovers quickly and can comment on this issue himself as soon as possible.

3 years ago
Posted by Tom Hagen

I don't know MARK KIRK.

I'm his same age.
I've seen KIRK only through the media.
He has ALWAYS seemed to be in fantastic shape and health.
So...the news that he suffered a stroke was SAD...and QUITE SHOCKING!

My first reaction to this that it's VILE.

KIRK is in a hospital bed...with part of his skull that his brain does not sustain further injury....
JEEZ...let KIRK HEAL before getting Mrs. Ex-Mark Kirk's comments!

But then...AFTER MORE THOUGHT...I think the author's right...BACKGROUND IS GOOD THING....

With BACKGROUND to KIRK's recognize similarities in your own life...and maybe SEE THINGS A bit more clearly....

Of course, there may be no connection to what Mrs. Ex-Mark Kirk describes and KIRK's condition....


3 years ago
Posted by mkr

Those of you throwing stones at the Senator's ex-wife Kimberly Vertolli and author Carol Felsenthal know that your first thought upon hearing of the Senator's stroke was the same as mine, and theirs: How can an apparently young healthy man in his early 50's have plaque-filled arteries that led to a stroke? Now we know the Senator's carotid dissection had nothing to do with cholesterol in his blood or blocked arteries. I knew nothing about this type of stroke a few days ago, and few outside the medical profession did either. Could this article have been written using more discretion and kindness? Yes.

I hope that the Senator's ex-wife loves him enough to be by his side, as his family most certainly is, giving him encouragement and support and assistance in the coming weeks and months and years. It sounds as if he will likely be disabled to some extent, and he will need help with the activities of daily living. No one is perfect, including the Senator and his ex-wife. Maybe the ex-wife, and the Senator, will find a deeper love for one another than they ever had before.

3 years ago
Posted by lles

I clicked on this article because I wanted to find out more about Mark Kirk, what his lifestyle was like. I personally don't think the ex sounds bitter, but regardless, it helps me know more about the senator. As a middle-aged woman, I was shocked to hear the news, and it's a good warning to people like my husband. He is not obese, but he has horrible eating and sleep habits. Everyone could use a reminder.

3 years ago
Posted by Joan V.

I agree with LLES; I too was very curious regarding the cause of Mr. Kirk’s stroke, as he is only 2 years older than me. I thank Carol for this post, as it affirms for me the importance of healthy eating and regular exercise, and gives me hope that I will not experience this same outcome!

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