“This is certainly not a trajectory of [my] life that I ever thought I’d be on, but I’m glad I’m here.”
Listen to the full interview:
“No warning whatsoever, literally. I’ll never forget because it was a Tuesday night.”
It was the summer of 2009, two weeks after Kelly Campbell’s 41st birthday. She was at home watching TV — the reality cooking show Chopped. Campbell had a bit of a headache, so she took an aspirin and went upstairs to lay down. She recalls, “When I lay down it felt like the aspirin was stuck. So I went to get up to try to dislodge it.”
As she got up, Campbell fell out of bed; the entire left side of her body was paralyzed. Her roommate heard her fall. “He took one look at me and he said, ‘You’re having a stroke. Your whole side of your face has fallen, too.’”
Campbell was born and raised in Griffin, Georgia. After attending college in Florida and living there for a while, she moved back to Georgia — Covington, and then Woodstock. She worked in special education for 21 years, assessing the effects of neonatal health and teaching preschoolers and kindergartners. Campbell has also been active in education in her community. In 2000 she ran for school board in Cherokee County and won, but often felt like her hands were tied while trying to effect change.
“You can’t change everybody’s mind, and things don’t get done. But so many of the things I went in thinking, ‘These are great ideas, let’s do this.’ there was some law; there was some regulation, there was some reason it couldn’t be done.”
Although she chose not to run for re-election, Campbell was successful in helping to implement a modified school calendar (more breaks throughout the year, with a shorter summer) and banning corporal punishment in Cherokee County schools. She says the experience gave her a whole new perspective of the educational system she’d been part of for so long. She calls it a “360-degree” perspective, a recurring theme in her life, professionally and personally.
Campbell’s experience in neonatal intensive care prepared her for when her son, Charlie, was born 12 weeks early and ended up in the NICU. At just two days old, he had a massive brain hemorrhage. Doctors said he would likely never walk or talk; the best case scenario would be a learning disability. Charlie beat the odds.
“He just graduated last May from Baylor University, and he’s just now finishing up his first year of grad school, so it was pretty amazing,” says Campbell. Her other son, Gus, is a student at Georgia Tech.
After the Stroke
Campbell spent ten days at Emory Hospital after her stroke, and another two months completing outpatient rehabilitation. She remembers, at first, feeling resentful of other patients.
“I was sitting next to a lady, and she was putting pegs in a pegboard with her affected side, and they gave me some sort of busy work. I remember just seething because she was beside me and she was moving.”
Then she had an epiphany. Although the woman next to her could move, she was unable to identify the colors of the pegs verbally. It was at that moment that Campbell realized each survivor has their own challenges. Campbell went home in a wheelchair and now walks with the aid of a leg brace and a cane. She also continues to have limited movement in her left hand.
In addition to physical changes, Campbell’s focus shifted from education to brain injury awareness. She joined one of the largest brain injury support groups and Georgia and became its leader, and is also a board member of the Brain Injury Association of Georgia (BIAG), which serves about 50,000 people a year. She now raises awareness by working with survivors and caregivers.
“There is this thread of commonality amongst all of us, regardless of how you got your brain injury, whether it’s an aneurysm or a stroke. There are things that are common to all of us.”
It was through her support group that Campbell learned about a research project at Georgia Tech related to stroke rehabilitation. Each year, more than 15 million people worldwide suffer strokes. At least five million of these patients are left disabled, making stroke the leading cause of long-term disability in the U.S. Access to stroke rehabilitation is often costly, time-consuming, or geographically inconvenient. Campbell is working with Georgia Tech researchers Thad Starner and Caitlyn Seim to test a low-cost, wireless, wearable computing glove that could provide therapy on-the-go. The glove also uses “muscle memory” to teach wearers to play simple songs on the piano and teaches Braille through tactile taps on the fingers.
When she joined the Georgia Tech study in January 2018, Campbell’s left hand was in a fist all of the time. She couldn’t put on the glove without assistance. Within a week of using the glove, her hand began to open, and she could put it on mostly by herself.
Nine years post stroke Campbell calls her journey a blessing. “This is certainly not a trajectory of [my] life that I ever thought I’d be on, but I’m glad I’m here. I don’t know if I’d go back and change it if I could, because the people that I’ve met, some of the things I’ve been able to influence and be influenced by, I would have never had that opportunity if life had just continued on the way it was going. So, it’s turned out to be a good thing.”
Georgia Tech Connection