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Getting a College Degree One “Stroke” at a Time

Here’s what it takes to graduate high school and get a college degree after rehabilitation for a brain injury.

By Kelsey Tainsh
Former Shepherd Center Patient

When I woke up to find the right side of my body paralyzed from a stroke at just 15 years old, there were many challenges I would face. By far, one of the hardest would be going back to high school and then going to college.

What it takes to return to high school, go to college and get a degree following rehabilitation for a brain injury is the ability to graduate high school even if it is in an alternative way. It requires the ability to take difficult circumstances, look past them and turn them into something great, as well as the ability to ask for help and count on a support system. Through recovery, time spent at Shepherd Center, and the success of rebuilding a life and receiving a degree, patients realize that there is more than one way to try and more than one way to succeed. At Shepherd Center, no matter what you have been through, you learn that you can still succeed.

One of the hardest challenges was going back to high school. When I returned to my high school in Florida, I was not getting the physical therapy I needed. The best option for therapy was Shepherd Center, and to get the therapy I needed and still graduate from high school on time with my two triplet sisters, I took all of my classes online through Florida Virtual School (FLVS). As their motto says, it allowed me to do my school work “Any Time, Any Place, Any Path and at Any Pace” – even in the back seat of a car on the drive from Orlando to Atlanta that we made twice a week so I could be treated at Shepherd.

The transition from high school to college can be hard for any student, but it is often harder for someone who has had a brain injury. It is important to try to form a good support system of family, friends and mentors. It is also important to form a good support system at and around the college. This support system can start with the college Disability Resource Center. They can provide several tools for support, including note-taking services, reduced course load and test-taking services. It can also include Vocational Rehabilitation Services, which provides great support for people with disabilities.

Our most difficult obstacles in life often have the most rewarding opportunities. By learning to be OK with our differences, it becomes clear that we are all different. There is no such thing as normal, and we should accept our own differences and the differences of others.

At the age of 17, less than two years after I had a stroke, I couldn’t have felt more different. It was in my AP English class that I wrote the following poem. It has since been published and gives a very clear definition of how different I felt after I had a brain injury.

The Aquarium

“I don’t really care for fish,” she said
When asked if she wanted to visit the aquarium.
Being paralyzed is like being
A member of another species.

She was just like those fish
Stuck in a place where she did not belong.
How scary it was to be trapped
Trapped in an aquarium.

Her fingers no longer moved
Her hand no longer could write
Her wrist could no longer go up and down
She no longer had a hand and her arm was now a fin.

Her paralyzed arm just like a fin
The kind that has been hit by a boat
How scary it was to be trapped.
Everything taken away from her
Just like the fish in the aquarium.

Her legs were flippers
She only truly had one.
And while she may have been able to swim
She could not walk, she could not run
Just like the fish in the aquarium.

“Where do you want to go today?”
“What do you want to do?”
But choosing to stay in one place
Was the only true freedom she knew.

“But it’s the largest aquarium in the world.”
No, she did not want to look at creatures
In their unnatural environments
As long as she was living in one of her own.

Once we can learn to accept ourselves and our differences, we can start to truly get better and learn new ways to do even the most basic tasks. What I learned after having a brain injury at 15 is that the right side of my body would work, but it would work in a different way, including the way I would learn to tie my shoes, brush my teeth, put my hair in a ponytail and so much more. Shepherd Center taught me that there is more than one way to do almost everything, and sometimes we just need to learn a different way. That is what it takes to graduate high school and get a college degree after rehabilitation for a brain injury.


KELSEY TAINSH has had to live her life differently than she planned, hoped or dreamed. Chances are, we can all relate to life not going exactly as planned. Through Kelsey’s unique, sometimes challenging, circumstances, she has learned the secrets of how to live an extraordinary life no matter what obstacles she faces.

Kelsey was diagnosed with a brain tumor at the age of 5. Later on, at age 15, the brain tumor returned and changed her life forever when she experienced a complete right-sided stroke. Despite the many challenges she faced, Kelsey graduated from high school on time with honors, graduated from the University of Florida with high honors, went to work for a Fortune 100 Company and now travels the country as a professional motivational speaker.

Read more about Kelsey at:

Follow her on Twitter: @KelseyTainsh

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.