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LONG ROAD BACK FOR A VICTIM OF BRAIN DAMAGE

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No one who looks at Kathy Reel knows there's anything wrong, but she is more than aware of her limitations.

Her blue eyes are bright and clear, her face composed and her smile animated. But, she said, "I'm still trying to get my brain to work right."The 25-year-old was in a car accident two years ago. When the paramedics arrived, she had no vital signs. For five days, she was in a coma, then drifted in and out of consciousness for another two weeks. Among her injuries were a punctured lung, a fractured pelvis and broken ribs, which all eventually healed.

While she's worked hard and made significant progress, she has not yet conquered damage done to her brain by two skull fractures.

Her legs, she said, are still weak. She can walk, but she can't run. She has learned how to write with her right hand again ("though not as good or as fast") and how to drive.

Occupational therapists taught her to use her hands and upper arms for some basic tasks, like making cookies. She swims once a week.

She constantly works on improving her cognitive and speech abilities.

Her first goal after the accident was to learn to walk. "That seems like nothing now," she said. "Head injuries are frustrating. You know you're smart, but others perceive you as being a dummy - or you think they do. It's hard for me, because I never had problems speaking, getting my thoughts out. I was quick-witted, funny, sarcastic. But in ways, my thinking's better; I see deeper meanings in things and shades of gray. It's not all black-and-white anymore."

She was taking business management classes and working in the trucking industry when the accident happened. She gave up that line of work, "which I loved," because her communication skills weren't up to it. Now, she works part time while she studies for a degree in education.

She doesn't know how much she can expect to improve, despite the hours of speech, occupational and rehabilitation therapy she's undergone at Holy Cross Hospital's Quinney Institute.

"You can't just take a pill and have it go away. I have trouble with word associations and the long-term part of my brain. It's a struggle because I know where I want to be and where I am and there's quite a distance in between the two places."