Leap of a lifetime
Athlete Kim Turok jumps a formidable hurdle — life-threatening
Photo by Andrew Shurtleff
had to relearn everything — how to walk
and talk, how to
write and how to comprehend
By Anne Bromley
Kimberlee M. Turko, who will receive a Master’s of Education degree in
kinesiology-motor learning May 16, is excited about walking down the Lawn – and
this time, remembering the experience. When she walked down the Lawn to receive
her bachelor’s degree in 2001, she had just gotten out of the hospital
after being in a coma for four days, and she has no memory of the occasion. In
the three years between then and now, this track-and-field athlete who ran hurdles
faced and cleared the most difficult hurdle of all — getting her life back.
A New Jersey native, Turko didn’t know she had a rare form of encephalitis
that could have been fatal. She had been feeling tired at the end of the 2000-2001
school year, and somehow made it through exams despite a 104-degree fever. Her
mother came to take her home for a week of rest before graduation. They were
on the New Jersey turnpike when Turko suffered a grand mal seizure. It took doctors
three days of testing to determine what was wrong.
Turko not only made it to Final Exercises, but also resumed
her education against medical recommendation. She had
already been accepted into the Curry
of Education and was determined to continue her plans although she was
Encephalitis infects the brain tissue, and in 95 percent
of cases, results in blindness, deafness or paralysis.
The form that struck Turko left her
long-term memory. She basically had to relearn everything — how to walk
and talk, how to write and how to comprehend reading.
When Turko woke up from the coma, she didn’t know her own name, didn’t
know her family and friends, and had no idea what had happened. After about a
day, she recognized her family, she said. She heard her mother telling someone
she wouldn’t be able to go to graduation, and even though she didn’t
quite know what that meant, she knew it was important and started to cry. Her
mom and grandparents accompanied her to the momentous occasion. Turko said she
kept quiet as much as possible, because she didn’t want people to know
that she didn’t remember them.
In fact, she didn’t really want to tell people what happened and have them
treat her differently, she said. Only gradually has she become more comfortable
talking about it as she has learned to live with the residual effects. Without
long-term memory, it takes a lot longer for her to retain new information; using
her short-term memory, she has to review material repeatedly “to get things
to stick.” She has chronic mononucleosis and the beginnings of chronic
fatigue syndrome, which make her tire easily.
8 p.m., I’m kaput. I have to take a nap or just go to bed until I can
work again the next day,” she said.
Her mother continues to inspire and help her when she’s having a rough
day. “She’s the first one I’d call when I was feeling lost,” Turko
“I’m more laid back now — so they tell me — than before the
storm, as we call it.”
The illness and its symptoms don’t seem to have slowed her down that much.
Turko took the first graduate course during the summer to re-orient
herself and discovered she couldn’t write. She bought a first-grade penmanship book
to practice. That first fall semester, she did confide somewhat in professor
Linda Bunker, whose class she was taking in Advanced Motor Learning. Bunker,
who has persevered in her career despite having cancer, had a special understanding.
don’t think anyone got as much out of the class as I did,” said
is quite an inspiration,” Bunker said. For Turko, the feeling is mutual.
She said she often keeps Bunker in mind, and it helps her put things in perspective.
With a year left on her track scholarship (due to an injury
in her third year here), Turko also regained her spot on
coordination. She came in third in the ACC’s All-Conference Invitational
in the 60-meter hurdles.
Her second year of graduate school, Turko took a break
from classes, but to stay involved, she got a part-time
for U.Va.’s track
and field team, which she’ll be doing until this season finishes at the
end of the month or mid-June. She’ll finish the program with a 3.8 grade-point
average and has applied for teaching and coaching jobs for the fall.
Turko hasn’t told the team much about what happened. Even without knowing
why, they help keep her going, she said, and she’d rather give them all
the energy and enthusiasm she can muster.