Constable: Sports legends helping paraplegic get moving again

  • Her knees held rigid by braces, Kelsey Ibach uses a walker for support as she takes steps with the help of therapist Megan Greenwood at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The 25-year-old Arlington Heights native was a passenger in a car crash that left her paralyzed below the waist.

    Her knees held rigid by braces, Kelsey Ibach uses a walker for support as she takes steps with the help of therapist Megan Greenwood at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The 25-year-old Arlington Heights native was a passenger in a car crash that left her paralyzed below the waist. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • An athletic cheerleader, actress and singer as a student at Hersey High School, Kelsey Ibach concentrates on keeping her balance as she catches a ball during this session with therapist Megan Greendwood at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The 25-year-old Arlington Heights native was a passenger in a car crash that left her paralyzed below the waist.

    An athletic cheerleader, actress and singer as a student at Hersey High School, Kelsey Ibach concentrates on keeping her balance as she catches a ball during this session with therapist Megan Greendwood at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. The 25-year-old Arlington Heights native was a passenger in a car crash that left her paralyzed below the waist. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • Needing support from her thigh to her toes to stand after a car crash left her paralyzed, Kelsey Ibach, 25, picked out braces with a leopard-skin pattern. "I'm being the same girlie girl I was before this," says the Arlington Heights native.

    Needing support from her thigh to her toes to stand after a car crash left her paralyzed, Kelsey Ibach, 25, picked out braces with a leopard-skin pattern. "I'm being the same girlie girl I was before this," says the Arlington Heights native. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • Unable to mover her legs after a car crash crushed her spine, Kelsey Ibach puts on custom leg braces with the help of therapist Megan Greenwood at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Sitting up used to be her goal, and now the Arlington Heights native is taking steps with her walker.

    Unable to mover her legs after a car crash crushed her spine, Kelsey Ibach puts on custom leg braces with the help of therapist Megan Greenwood at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago. Sitting up used to be her goal, and now the Arlington Heights native is taking steps with her walker. Burt Constable | Staff Photographer

  • The motivation and strength she draws from parents Bob and Vera Ibach and older brother Kevin inspire her to rehab from a debilitating injury that left her paralyzed below the waist, says Kelsey Ibach. The Arlington Heights native, shown here with her family at a Cubs game before she was injured, spends six hours a day learning how to adjust to her new life.

    The motivation and strength she draws from parents Bob and Vera Ibach and older brother Kevin inspire her to rehab from a debilitating injury that left her paralyzed below the waist, says Kelsey Ibach. The Arlington Heights native, shown here with her family at a Cubs game before she was injured, spends six hours a day learning how to adjust to her new life. Courtesy of Kelsey Ibach

 
 
Posted4/14/2015 5:30 AM

After the speeding car smashed through a fence, plunged off a bridge and landed on its roof in a Chicago rail yard, 25-year-old passenger Kelsey Ibach decided that death was her best option.

"Right when it happened, I had no feeling below my chest level, so I knew right away that something was wrong," remembers Ibach, who grew up in Arlington Heights. "When the pain hit, I did say, 'I want to die.'"

 

A former cheerleader, actress and singer at John Hersey High School, the generally optimistic Ibach knew where to find the motivation she needed to live.

"I pictured my family and friends going on without me, and I couldn't stand to see their faces coping with that," says Ibach, who says that grim image gave her the will to survive. "I wasn't really doing it for me. I was doing it for them."

On Sunday afternoon, those friends and family are hosting a fundraiser for the gregarious young woman, paralyzed below the waist. Raffles and auctions at The Sports Page Bar & Grill in Arlington Heights feature more than 150 unique items, including diamond earrings and two tickets to the practice round of the 2016 Masters golf tournament.

Using connections that her father, Bob Ibach, made during his career in sports marketing and public relations, the event includes iconic photographs, artwork and autographed items from sports legends such as Sandy Koufax, Mike Schmidt, Billy Williams, Fergie Jenkins, Ryne Sandberg, Nolan Ryan and others.

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"We're so blessed," says Bob Ibach, who with his wife, Vera, and son, Kevin, have received an outpouring of support as they focus on helping Kelsey deal with her grueling rehabilitation. A gofundme.com account has raised more than $43,000.

The crash occurred on Sept. 13 after Ibach and a couple of her friends accepted a ride from a River North bar. Prosecutors say driver Philip J. Cho, 28, of Naperville left the scene and hailed a cab back to Naperville. He is charged with felony failure to report an accident, as well as several misdemeanors. A civil suit accuses him of negligence.

Going from the hospital to a rehabilitation center for more than two months with five broken vertebrae, seven broken ribs and a collapsed lung, Ibach needed days of therapy to master the simple task of sitting up. Now, as an outpatient spending six hours in therapy several days a week at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, Ibach adjusts to life in a wheelchair as she takes small steps toward her goal of walking again.

"The first time we did this, I had to move Kelsey's legs for her," says neurological clinical specialist Megan Greenwood, as Ibach wears leg braces and uses a walker to slowly move down an RIC hallway. "We're still in that critical period of six to 12 months where the biggest changes occur. She hasn't stopped progressing since the day she came in, and that's a good sign."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

While a positive attitude can't heal a broken spine, Greenwood, who has master's and doctorate degrees in physical therapy, says Ibach is "very much more well-adjusted" than many young people who suffer catastrophic injuries.

"Even if you get up and walk next year, you still need to spend a year in a wheelchair," says Ibach, who has been trying to be her old self since her second day of rehab.

"I couldn't get myself into a wheelchair, but I could get myself to a mirror and I could do my hair. I'm being the same girlie-girl I was before this," she says, laughing, and noting that she selected leopard-print braces and matte black wheelchair "so it would match all my outfits."

Learning how to stand in her own kitchen or handle other basic chores can be humbling and depressing. Ibach tries to focus on the progress she's made.

"In just a few months, I can now walk a whole lap pretty much by myself," she says during an RIC workout. "I'm hoping sometime in my lifetime, we'll see some kind of breakthrough."

Healthy and fit before the injury, Ibach says she "misses yoga" but is happy that her injuries won't prevent her from having children, and haven't altered her personality or friendships. University of Missouri classmates and Tri-Delta sorority sisters Melanie Collier and Christie Kniesche flew to Chicago within hours of the crash.

"I started joking the minute I got the breathing tube out because I wanted them to know I was the same Kelsey," she says. Ibach's live-in boyfriend, Kevin Luchansky, was in New York for a friend's wedding when he got the middle-of-the-night phone call.

"I told him, 'I don't know if I'll ever walk again and you can break up with me if you want to,'" says Ibach.

"It never crossed my mind," says Luchansky, who recently moved with her into a more-accessible apartment in a Wrigleyville high-rise. "I told her we were in it together."

While it is natural to wonder, "Why me?" or go over all the "what-ifs?" of that tragic night, Ibach says that that thinking doesn't help her deal with the life she has now.

"The brain is a powerful thing, and you can only move forward and do the best you can," Ibach says, recalling the first conversation she had with a doctor after the crash. "I asked him if I'd ever walk again. He said, 'This isn't a life-ending event, it's a life-altering event.' That wasn't my favorite thing to hear at the time, but I have to say he was right."

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