Editor’s note: The following article appears in the Spring 2017 edition of the OHSAA (Ohio High School Athletic Association) magazine and is reprinted with persmission.
There is a reason why there are no handles on the back of Kaylee Hurley’s wheelchair.
“I don’t want anyone helping me,” she said with a confident smile when asked about the device that now provides her mobility. “I had to get it custom made.”
That sums up this senior at McClain High School in Greenfield. There’s not much about Hurley that isn’t unique, including the medical episode that changed her life.
Just don’t feel sorry for her. She won’t let you.
“When Kaylee was in the hospital, she told me to quit crying,” her mother, Shawnee, said. “She said if anyone was crying, they had to leave the room.”
It was Dec. 13, 2010. Hurley was at her grandmother’s house, having an otherwise normal day, but started feeling pain in her legs. Then she lost all feeling in her legs. That’s when they called 9-1-1, and before they could even call all the relatives, Hurley was on a helicopter to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus.
“She was in the helicopter and got to Columbus in about 15 minutes,” Shawnee said. “My husband and I drove as fast as we could. They were doing so many tests and we were all just trying to figure out what was going on.”
Hurley had experienced a stroke in her lower back, as somehow blood had been cut off from the area. The damage was permanent.
“It’s a one-in-a-million thing,” Hurley said. “They never did find the cause. It could have been a muscle spasm or something. I don’t ask why or how.”
She spent three months at Nationwide Children’s. After about a month, the swelling had gone down enough for the doctors to know the damage for sure – paralysis. The news came as a shock to her family.
The 12-year-old who loved soccer, basketball, softball, performing in pageants and showing pigs and rabbits at the county fair was now being fitted with her first set of KAFO (Knee and Foot Orthotics) braces.
“Think Forest Gump,” she said laughing.
“My first thought was that so much of her life had just ended,” Shawnee said. “She’s not going to dance, or put on a prom dress, or play sports. But it turned out that nothing really changed. She just had to figure out how to do it a little differently.”
It was during her stay at Nationwide Children’s, in another part of the hospital, that had just as big of an impact on Hurley’s life as anything she was going through.
“One day we took a walk over to the cancer wing and saw the kids who were fighting cancer,” Hurley said. “That’s when I realized how lucky I was, and I knew that somehow I was still going to do the things I love. Giving back to Nationwide Children’s is one of those things.”
Hurley joined the mentorship program at the hospital and has been speaking with patients ever since. She has been involved in four Nationwide Children’s telethons and has appeared in two NCH commercials and various photo shoots.
“When they have a particular patient that really needs to talk to someone, they call Kaylee,” Shawnee said.
When Hurley entered high school, she connected with the Adapted Sports Program of Ohio (ASPO) and began competing on the track in her racing chair. It was at that same time that the Ohio High School Athletic Association added seated events to its state track and field championships. Kaylee has won three state championships, which is one of her biggest thrills.
“My first time at state, I said, ‘Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into,’” Hurley said. “The camaraderie with the other state qualifiers is amazing. We talk a lot outside the season.”
She has also gotten back into pageants and performances and the county fair, where she was named to the queen’s court last fall. She played Auntie Em in McClain’s rendition of “The Wizard of Oz” this spring.
“I love being on stage and public speaking,” she said.
Over time, some feeling has returned to her lower legs and she can now partially extend one leg. She can drive a car thanks to hand controls.
“My family has been so supportive,” Hurley said when describing her mother, her father, Mike, and her sister, Paige. “They are why I strive to be so independent.”
She plans to compete in various kinds of road races using her racing chair, but she doesn’t plan to pursue racing at an elite level. From an athletic standpoint, Hurley thinks about basketball the most.
“I haven’t been able to go to very many of my school’s games because I miss it so much,” she said.
She has already turned her focus to the future. In May, Hurley will take the walk – rest assured it will happen somehow – down the historic marble staircase inside McClain High School. It’s the same marble staircase that has been the graduation day goal of every student since the building opened in 1916. School tradition dictates that students are permitted to descend that particular flight of stairs for the first time on their graduation day.
After that, she plans to go to college and one day become a high school counselor. She knows that wherever the road takes her, she will have her challenges, but she will be ready.
“Sometimes I start to think that this is so aggravating,” Kaylee said. “But I’ve learned that it’s OK to have a bad day once in a while, as long you don’t live your life that way.”
Her’s is a life based not on “what if’s.” For Kaylee, it’s based on heart and soul.
Tim Stried is the director of communications for the Ohio High School Athletic Association.