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U.Va. Track Athlete Kim Turko Leaps A Formidable Hurdle — Life-Threatening Illness

May 7, 2004 -- Kimberlee M. Turko, who will receive a Master’s of Education degree in kinesiology-motor learning from the University of Virginia on May 16, is excited about walking down the Lawn to receive her diploma – 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 School of Education at U.Va. and was determined to continue her plans although she was still recovering.

Encephalitis infects the brain tissue, and in 95 percent of cases, results in blindness, deafness or paralysis. The form that struck Turko left her with no 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.

“By 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 said.

“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 education 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.

“I don’t think anyone got as much out of the class as I did,” said Turko.

“She 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 her third undergraduate year), Turko also regained her spot on the team, working hard to relearn her 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 job as assistant coach 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.

Contact: Anne Bromley, (434) 924-6861

FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION: Contact the Office of University Relations at (434) 924-7116. Television reporters should contact the TV News Office at (434) 924-7550.

SOURCE: U.Va. News Services

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