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kelly zebell's story-rehabilitation

‘A chance to live life again’ after stroke

June 21, 2015: Right leg moved.

June 26, 2015: Dressed myself.

June 27, 2015: Walked 150 feet.

These abbreviated journal entries describe Kelly Zebell's miraculous progress in Inpatient Rehabilitation at Gundersen Health System in La Crosse, just days after suffering a hemorrhagic stroke—a life-threatening condition that occurs when a blood vessel in the brain begins to leak or bursts.

Kelly had been in the shower when she first noticed something was wrong. "I went to grab the shampoo bottle and dropped it," she says. "When I went to pick it up, I couldn't."

The Sparta resident turned off the water and tried to walk, but the right side of her body wouldn't cooperate. Thanks to a serendipitously timed health presentation at her job several weeks earlier, Kelly knew the symptoms of stroke and how to BE FAST at the first signs—some of which she recognized in herself.

B = Sudden loss of coordination and Balance
E = Sudden loss of vision or double vision (Eyes)
F = Weakness on one side of the Face
A = Arm or leg weakness on one side
S = Difficulty speaking or understanding Speech
T = Terrible, sudden headache

"I remember thinking strokes happen to old people, not to me," Kelly says. "I was 40. A stroke couldn't be happening to me."

Despite her disbelief, Kelly knew she needed help. She called her husband, Dave, who then called 9-1-1. Kelly was transferred by helicopter to Gundersen, where she immediately underwent surgery. Doctors later told her the survival rate for the procedure on a brain bleed as massive as hers—roughly the size of an orange—is less than 2 percent.

Against the odds, Kelly awoke and was moved from the Intensive Care Unit to Inpatient Rehabilitation to begin the long process of re-learning things she'd known how to do since she was a toddler but that the stroke had erased.

"The only way I can describe my rehabilitation is like when you watch a child learning how to roll over or pick up stuff," Kelly says. "It was so strange, but when I learn something new, it's amazing. I have a chance to live life again."

Kelly graduated from Inpatient Rehabilitation in summer 2015, though the bonds she formed with her providers remain.

"It was more than therapy," Kelly says. "They never made me feel less than … like I was less than human. I was just me, with some limitations."

Today, Kelly is back to so many of the things she enjoyed before her stroke. To keep track of her continued progress and express gratitude for how far she has come, she continues to journal.

May 23, 2018: It is almost three years since my stroke. I like to think that every day I'm still healing. Driving has definitely been a struggle … Today, I finally drove myself to downtown La Crosse. It was AWESOME!!! I can finally cross that off the bucket list! So proud of myself!!

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