A Child and a Senator Strike Up an Unexpected Friendship After Suffering Similar Strokes

CHAMPAIGN—A politician and a 12-year-old, both lucky to be alive and building a bond that will last for the rest of their lives. Senator Mark Kirk and Jackson Cunningham have made an unexpected friendship based on their strikingly similar experiences.

Twelve-year-old Jackson Cunningham is an athlete, but the last time he showed up to practice was on February 19, 2011.

“I got done with basketball, and I went back home,” said Cunningham. “And I started having a headache. And my stomach started to hurt.”

That night, Cunningham suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of his body. In the following weeks, he began his recovery at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, where he was walking within two days, and it wasn't long after before he stumbled upon a new friend.

“I was at therapy, and I started hearing someone talking about someone having another stroke,” said Cunningham. “It turned out to be him, and my speech therapist said, you should write him a letter.”

“When the letter came it said, ‘I had a stroke senator too. I'm also at the RIC, and this is where my dad and I go for pizza around the hospital there,'” said Kirk, Illinois junior, Republican, U.S. senator. “It was exactly the places that I had been ordering out from around there.”

Because like Jackson, Kirk was recovering from a stroke that had also paralyzed the left side of his body. And the similarities did not stop there.

“Having the same surgeries, liking zombies,” Cunningham recalls.

“I was playing one zombie game to help me with my hand eye coordination between me and the computer,” said Kirk. “And I would always joke with him that if he didn't get better at the zombie game, that America might get overrun with zombies.”

But Monday, America was overrun by Jackson, as he joined Kirk and senior members of the Illinois football team for a 40-yard dash down the Memorial Stadium field. His impressive finish not only shows how far he's come, it also inspires his biggest fan.

“Once I met Jackson and saw how fast he could run, then my personal goal became for me to run,” said Kirk. “We'll just go through life, challenge each other.”

“We're going to be lifelong friends,” said Cunningham. “We're going to get all the way better.”

 One step at a time.
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