Courtney Silva – Special to The Southern News –
Kaitlyn Dyrek was struck by a Chevy Suburban while walking on the side of the road with her friends on July 24, 2006.
She was 13 years old. She never heard the car coming.
She was thrown from her shoes and landed face down in the brush. Her two friends checked for signs of life and called 911.
She would remain in a coma for several days, dealing with a traumatic brain injury.
This bright, gifted student would be in for the fight of her young life.
Over the next several months, Dyrek would have to re-learn all of life’s basic functions.
Today, as a vibrant 20-year-old and a communications-disorder major at SCSU, Dyrek still copes with tremors.
She has trusted the Disability Resource Center to support her through the social and academic concerns she has encountered on campus over the last year.
“It is a well-placed trust,” she said.
Deborah Fairchild, executive director of the DRC, said she has seen Dyrek make tremendous progress over the last year.
“She’s confident and willing to speak in groups,” Fairchild said. “She is more up to making friends, and advocates for herself.”
In fact, Dyrek said, she owes the choice of her major to the therapy program she was in at SCSU as a teenager recovering from her traumatic brain injury. She became hooked on the idea of helping others cope with speech pathology.
For Dyrek, her life before the accident is nearly a blank slate. Her parents and friends had to fill in the details for her.
Recently, she’s begun to get flashbacks of memories. She’s starting to recall patches of her life that at one point didn’t exist to her; like the trip she took to Disneyworld with her family as a young child.
She finds that she is able to talk about the accident to people she can trust:
The ambulance arrived and Dyrek was unconscious. In travel, the EMT’s reported that Dyrek’s injuries far exceeded what they could handle and she actually slipped into a coma.
Once at Johnson Memorial Hospital in Stafford Springs, Conn., Dyrek was airlifted by Lifestar to Hartford Hospital.
Dyrek’s family was notified by her change in condition. In fact, Dyrek’s family said they saw Lifestar landing on top of the hospital when they arrived.
Once inside, Dyrek was immediately rushed into surgery. According to the doctor’s conversation with Dyrek’s family, they determined that she had numerous skull fractures, broken hips, a lacerated chin, broken pelvis, broken left arm, broken left foot and left ankle.
These injuries couldn’t prepare everyone for what the doctors came across next in surgery.
She had a traumatic brain injury. Dyrek’s right part of her brain, where her reading, writing and memory are held, was drastically affected.
After surgery, she was brought to the intensive care unit at the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center. On her first night, a nurse gave Dyrek’s family a heart wrenching analysis.
“We’ve done all that we can. Her life is in God’s hands now.”
Dyrek slowly came out of her coma on the tenth day. She was moved to the trauma wing of the Connecticut Children’s Medical Center.
The doctors had to put her back into a medically-induced coma because she wasn’t strong enough to begin the rehabilitation stage. They brought her out of the coma by reducing the amount of medicine that was entering her body. Once out, Dyrek didn’t know anyone or anything, not even her own family members or how to walk or talk.
“I felt like I was a baby again, but in a teenager’s body,” she said.
For the next 41 days, Dyrek dedicated her time doing speech, occupational and physical therapy. While undergoing speech therapy, she was diagnosed with Wernicke’s Aphasia; it is defined as having difficulty finding words, grammar and memory.
After Dyrek spent 61 days at the children’s hospital, she went onto Gaylord Hospital and Rehabilitation Center as an outpatient. While at Gaylord, she had physical, occupational, speech, group and aquatic therapy for a period of eight months.
Theresa Allgood, speech language pathologist at Gaylord Rehabilitation Center, said she saw Dyrek as a hard worker and self-motivator.
“She is the most memorable patient to go through our program, with her being very young at the time. Being only 14, she was very mature for her age,” Allgood said.
Dyrek proved to be a fighter.
“She didn’t back down from any challenge and anytime she was given something more structured, she had a more difficult time, but persevered and was self-confident to fully recover,” Allgood said.
Dyrek missed her entire freshman year of high school, though she went to the school part-time so she could get a feel for people her own age.
The following year, she started her actual freshman year full-time at Maloney High School in Meriden, Conn.
Throughout high school, Dyrek struggled to re-connect with her peers.
From the time of Dyrek’s accident up until high school, she had four girlfriends she was very close with. They decided in their junior years to become distant with her.
Not only were her peers giving her problems, but some subjects were more difficult to understand than others.
She struggled more with English than any other subject because writing and reading resided in the part of the brain that was affected in the accident. Math, on the other hand, was her strongest subject. The part of the brain that deals with computation didn’t get damaged in the accident.
Throughout high school, Dyrek’s GPA never went below a 3.0.
By the time she graduated high school, she earned a 3.6 GPA and she maintained a place on the A/B Honor Roll throughout all four years.
With that outstanding GPA, she was awarded eight scholarships to go into her first year of college.
At Southern, she would find that she didn’t have to battle her disabilities alone.
“She can achieve the same opportunities as everyone else once she earns her degree,” Fairchild said. “There is a misperception about people with disabilities—that they are limited and they aren’t.”
Fairchild sees people with disabilities as a microcosm of the larger population. They are no different than any other student on campus. Students that are part of a club, joined an athletic team or have earned recognition on the Dean’s List are all typical students with disabilities here at Southern.
The Disability Resource Center sponsors a specific club on campus called Outreach Unlimited. It’s open to everyone on campus, with or without a disability. It puts on special events and fundraisers to raise awareness for the campus community.
According to DRC records, roughly 500 registered SCSU students use the DRC for specific accommodations that relate to their disability. Not every student has the same accommodations. They are based on a case-by-case basis and class circumstances. The only restraint is they can’t change the essential requirements of the course.
They serve all students who provide documentation of a disability that substantially impacts them in an educational setting. Students with verifiable disabilities, visible or hidden, qualify for services.
When she started at the DRC two years ago as a sophomore, she was looking online for jobs on campus. When she came across an open position at the DRC, she knew it was the right place and wouldn’t want to work anywhere else.
Gracie Leone, student worker in the DRC, said she understands the life of an individual with a disability.
“I grew up with a sister that has epilepsy and I have respected people with disabilities always. I’ve seen the different side of the spectrum and people with disabilities can accomplish anything.”
Over the last year, Fairchild has seen Dyrek grow as a person and student and can honestly say that “a disability does not define her individual character.”
She added that “compassion for what she is devoted to achieve in life is sometimes blocked by challenging complications, but she is able to accept and deal with them, by benefiting from the support groups that surround her every day.”