'Miracle Girl': After brain bleed, Wheaton woman rebuilds her life
Jen Kray found herself in a hospital bed, unable to move anything except her right thumb and her blue eyes.
She had survived a risky brain surgery that saved her life. But it was too soon to think about her new reality.
She was a 23-year-old from Wheaton, a type-A personality, and she had her own patients to help as a grad student in the middle of her clinicals and months away from earning a master's degree in occupational therapy. What would happen to them if she was stuck in this hospital bed?
"I had an agenda, so when I first woke up, I thought, 'It's Sunday, and I have work tomorrow.'"
Kray underestimated what it would take to recover from a brain bleed. She would miss her graduation and the things that define your 20s: new jobs, relationships, adventures.
Four years later, the losses are devastating, but at 27, Kray is not bitter. "I'm still me," she says.
Still a runner at heart, she is organizing a fundraising 5K in May for medical research even as she works to walk without a cane. And she is telling her story in a book she's calling "Miracle Girl," as she was known to one of her nurses.
"I am realizing I don't need my life to be exactly how it was before," Kray says.
Kray had a plan. Finish grad school at St. Ambrose University in Iowa. Become an occupational therapist and begin a dream career.
"I really enjoyed the medical field in general, and I really liked OT because of the relationships with the patients and what they focused on, which is function and what tasks you can do," she says.
Before she became the type of patient she had studied, Kray was with her family at their vacation house in Wisconsin when she got a bad headache. She was sitting on a couch with her dad and feeling sensitive to light. She got up to walk across the room and collapsed on Feb. 28, 2015.
Rushed to an emergency room and then flown to the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Kray was diagnosed with a ruptured cavernous angioma. A tangle of blood vessels the size of a raspberry had burst, causing a hemorrhage in the pons region at the base her brain.
An on-call doctor told her family the bleed was inoperable. There was nothing to do but observe. But the bleed got bigger and bigger, and Kray began receiving palliative care. Roughly 24 hours later, a neurosurgeon, Dr. Mustafa Baskaya, was making the rounds with his other patients, learned about Kray's case and took it over.
"Even at the risk of operating in the area, without an attempt to remove the blood clot, she would certainly die," Jen's mom, Jane Kray, wrote in a journal. "He felt she deserved a chance."
After she regained consciousness, Kray couldn't breathe on her own and couldn't talk. She had rediscovered her Catholic faith a year earlier and filled the void with a simple prayer she repeated in her head over and over again.
"I think the times that were scary is when I would wake up in the middle of the night, and I would feel really hot or uncomfortable, but the lights were out," she says. "Everyone in the room is sleeping, and there's no way to call for help. God is the only one that could hear me."
Kray doesn't consider herself a medical miracle. Cognitively, she could remember everything. But she had to relearn how to walk, eat, talk. And she still is.
"While I was in rehab, my friends were going out on the weekends. They were traveling. They were getting new jobs and moving all around the country, and they were getting married, and that was just -- it was brutal emotionally because I could not do those things," she says. "I just physically wasn't ready."
She's reliving the ordeal in a book -- she's finished the first draft -- about the first year after her surgery. She's writing about the worst of it: the moments of helplessness, the end of a 3½-year relationship, the feeling she was losing her identity and letting go of a dream when she had to drop out of OT school.
"I realized that, physically, I cannot meet the requirements right now, and that rehab has to be my main priority," she says.
She found a new purpose and the confidence to revisit the trauma when her former OT instructors asked her to talk with classes. She's hoping to help more patients than she ever could as a therapist.
"I really do have insight that is valuable to future clinicians and clinicians now," she says. "So I started doing presentations with them, and then I've done a couple others at hospitals, so I guess that was sort of how the idea of a book came about. I realized my story is worth sharing."
It's worth sharing because of her perspective. She relies on her dad to work on exercises at home and in the gym, but she finds the humor and silver lining in their routine.
"My dad stays with me full-time as my therapist, which, just so everyone knows, I taught him everything that he knows," she says.
Kray used to search for a deeper meaning, a specific reason behind what happened. Now, she's just embracing her new life.
"I felt a lot of pressure to restore everything to exactly where it was, and that's just not realistic for anyone going through any change," she says. "It's never going to be the same. It can be even better, though."
'A happier person'
Every year, Kray sends a note of gratitude to Dr. Baskaya. She also takes the time to send his daughter a card, knowing he missed the young girl's birthday party to perform Kray's surgery.
"That's the least I can do," she says.
With the 5K in Wheaton May 5, Kray wants to raise $5,000 for Dr. Baskaya's namesake research lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. It's also a way to stay connected to running and her cross-country and track career at Wheaton Warrenville South High School.
"She's pretty amazing, just the fight and desire to get better," her dad, Jim Kray, says. "And she doesn't know when to quit."
Her therapists see that persistence at Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital in Wheaton. Of all the patients who have used a robotic exoskeleton to focus on issues of balance and posture, Kray has logged the most steps in the battery-powered frame introduced at Marianjoy nearly four years ago, outpatient physical therapist Kimberly Furman says.
"I think I'm just doing what anyone else would do: to live, to work hard, to not give up," Kray says.
She hasn't regained use of her left arm, and she's sometimes frustrated with the slow pace of recovery.
"At first you progress quickly. You make huge strides," she says. "It's really exciting, but now I am just about four years out, and things slowed down. They don't stop, but it's really hard to stay positive when you work so hard every day and you're not seeing huge results."
So what sustains her? Her faith, her family and friends.
"I am so grateful that I have the perspective that I do now because I did not before," she says. "It's just I have a better sense of what really matters than I did before my injury, and I think that alone just makes me a happier person."
Race for the Base 5KWhat: Fundraiser for Base of Skull Neurosurgery Research at the University of Wisconsin-Madison
When: 9 a.m. May 5
How to donate: In lieu of a race fee, a minimum donation of $30 is encouraged at Gofundme.com/race-for-the-base or email firstname.lastname@example.org to pay by cash or check
Where: Forest Preserve District of DuPage County Headquarters, 3S580 Naperville Road, Wheaton