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Back to Work, Back to Life, Four Months After a Stroke

Chris Kelly experienced a stroke at age 33, but is making a comeback thanks to Shepherd Center.

Chris Kelly, 33, of Snellville, Ga., has always loved the outdoors, particularly hunting and fishing. When he and his wife Jessie became parents, though, his favorite outdoor activities shifted to whatever games his two children wanted to play in the yard.

But on June 14, 2014, Chris had a stroke. In the days following, while still in the hospital, he would think frequently about those lawn games. “You have those questions in your head,” he says. “Will I ever be able to play catch with my son again? Will I be able to run around and chase my daughter?”

Those questions began to be answered as soon as Chris entered the post-acute stroke program at Shepherd Center’s Shepherd Pathways in Decatur, Ga., in late July. “It was an environment of: ‘Let’s do this. It’s time to get to work,’” he says. “There was no time to be negative because the staff was willing to push me as far as I would let them.”

Shepherd Center’s expertise in stroke rehabilitation for younger adults also provided newfound perspective to Chris. “I thought I was far too young to have a stroke, that I was a rarity,” he says. “But I realized there are more people going through this than I thought. It helped to see people my age pushing themselves. They became friends to lean on when I was having a tough time with something.”

When Chris began his stroke rehabilitation, he was almost exclusively in a wheelchair. By his last day, three months later, Chris could walk long distances with only a single-point cane. And the physical recovery was only part of the process. Occupational, recreational and speech therapists helped Chris quickly get back to his career as a computer programmer and software developer.

Through Shepherd Center’s vocational services program, Chris collaborated with a vocational counselor, passed neuropsychological tests, and re-acclimated to working in distraction-filled environments by volunteering with MedShare – one of Shepherd Center’s partner organizations. Chris helped sort excess medical equipment for use by medical missions, churches and other nonprofits.

By his sixth week at Shepherd Pathways, he was able to begin a part-time transition to his previous job. Chris gradually built up his endurance and will be back working full-time in November. He will soon undergo a driving evaluation, as well, which he expects to enable him to drive again and fully reclaim his independence.

Chris credits his rapid progress to a commitment to staying positive and to the individualized care he received at Shepherd Pathways.

“From the front desk to the case managers to the doctors, my favorite thing about this place is that they understand that everyone is different,” he says. “They get to know you as an individual and come up with specific ways to challenge you. A lot of people pushed me to come here, and now I know why. I’d never be this far along, so quickly, without them.”

Kathie Kurtz, Chris’ case manager, says the benefits of such dedicated care are still greatly dependent on each individual’s commitment to the process. “From the beginning, it was clear in Chris’ case that he had a strong desire to achieve his goals of returning to work and being the father and husband he had always been,” Kurtz says. “As a case manager, I can also attest to the importance of strong support systems in rehabilitation outcomes. And Chris has an incredible circle of support.”

While he isn’t running full-speed around the yard with his kids quite yet, Chris knows he’s getting close. And his children (Parker, 5, and Catherine, 4) are helping “motivate” him to get there.

“Sometimes, my kids will grab my cane and tell me to come get it,” Chris says with a laugh. “That’s one way to get me walking without assistance! Some days they’re my own physical and occupational therapists.”

Written by Phillip Jordan
Photos by Gary Meek

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.