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.First of all, the reporter having covered Mark Kirk for a number of years, knows that he is not overweight, doesn't smoke, doesn't consume much alcohol and is a Naval reserve officer who has served several tours of duties in Afghanistan in recent years. Kirk's doctor, who has known him for years, had an entirely different opinion of his health. “He works out regularly. He eats a reasonably good diet and takes care of himself. He had to pass his Navy physical twice a year. So he had to be in reasonably good shape,” Dr. Richard Fessler said. “But I don’t think that this event has anything to do with either stress or his diet. It’s just one of those unfortunate disasters that happen to people sometimes,” he added. Fessler explained to the media that Kirk's stroke was brought on as a result of a dissected carotid artery in his right neck, which caused swelling in his brain. Emergency surgery over the weekend was performed to correct the problem.
Felsenthal would have done her readers a big favor if she had chosen to rely on the opinion of medical experts rather than an embittered ex-spouse to explain Kirk's stroke. After a number of online commenters attacked her story as "despicable" and "a sad day for journalism", Felsenthal posted the following comment in response:
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.I'm having a difficult time believing that former Mayor Harold Washington's death by heart attack or Nancy Reagan's breast cancer were on her mind as she was discussing Kirk's personal health with his bitter ex-wife, who had a past history of saying less than nice things about him to this very same reporter. One of the commenters hit the nail on the head: "I don't remember Harry Reid getting this kind of treatment when he suffered a similar stroke."