Kristen's story

Patient with therapists

Kristen Heinzel was living her dream as a naval flight student and an avid triathlete in Florida. “I was training for the World Championship Triathlon when the accident happened,” said Kristen. “I was feeling on top of the world and in the best shape of my life; then I was hit by a car while I was training on my bike in Florida.”

Kristen's injuries were extensive—a traumatic brain injury, two broken ankles, a cracked pelvis, her left upper arm was snapped in half and she had abrasions all over her body. She was intubated and airlifted to a Florida trauma center, where she spent four weeks.

Kristen needed specialized rehabilitation and more time to heal. Once she stabilized, her family chose to transfer her to Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation (KIR) - West Orange for the next level of recovery. The location was close to her dad and the reputation was excellent. On admission, Kristen was unable to walk, use her hands well, conduct self-care activities (dressing, bathroom, shower), speak well and she experienced mild to moderate cognitive issues.

Her physician-led team of therapists at KIR - West Orange, including physical, occupational, speech and respiratory, created a plan to help Kristen meet her goals. She wanted to walk and talk normally and be able to care for herself.

Kristen had difficulties with balance and range of motion. She required boots on both feet to stabilize her ankles. The injuries to her upper body made it difficult to use a walker. High-intensity gait training, body weight support systems and cognitive dual-task activities were all part of her rehabilitation. As her therapy progressed, she soon could walk without boots.

In occupational therapy, Kristen regained fine motor skills, range of motion and coordination. Using adaptive equipment, she relearned how to perform daily activities, including dressing herself and using a cell phone.

Kristen faced the loss of language and weakness in the muscles used for speech after the accident. Both issues resolved with speech therapy. Her speech therapist at KIR - West Orange worked with her in the areas of visual spatial skills, attention, immediate and short-term memory, functional problem solving, verbal organization, auditory processing, executive functioning and speech intelligibility.

“My rehab has been amazing,” said Kristen. With repetition and practice Kristen began to dress herself, reach and grab items and walk. One of the milestones in recovery was walking without the boots. She was nervous to even try, but she did it. Similarly, an A++ grade on a worksheet she did for speech therapy, gave her a boost of confidence. “I thought to myself, ‘Okay, my brain is getting back to normal,’” she said.

Kristen's family and friends played an invaluable role as she recovered. Her father was a constant presence, helping her understand and navigate her therapies. Friends from different parts of the country flew in to offer their support. The sense of camaraderie and encouragement from her siblings and friends motivated Kristen to keep pushing forward.

As Kristen prepared to leave KIR - West Orange, she looked forward to the enjoying the simple joys of life, like walking downtown and dining out with her dad. Her gratitude for the little things has deepened, and she appreciated the newfound patience she gained. Kristen planned to continue her rehabilitation in Florida through telehealth and outpatient services with Kessler.

While Kristen could never have imagined being in the position she is at toady, she said, “My perseverance increased… I now have so much gratitude for the little things, like walking.”