Woman with brain injury to play organ at Christmas Eve service

Monday, December 24, 2012
Kelly Irvin plays the organ with the Leopold Catholic Church's choir Sunday, Dec. 23, as they rehearse for the church's Christmas midnight mass. (ADAM VOGLER)

For the past 10 years, Kelly Irvin has played the organ during the Christmas Eve midnight Mass at St. John Catholic Church in Leopold, Mo. Like any good performer, she practices as often as she can.

Earlier this year, however, it looked like Irvin, 24, wouldn't be able to do many things again, much less play something as complicated as an organ. She was involved in a single-car accident March 27 that caused traumatic brain injury and a broken pelvis; at times her chances of leading a normal life looked dim.

"She's a walking, talking miracle," says Sheila Irvin, Kelly's mother. "Kelly's recovery has been the bright spot of the year."

Kelly Irvin was traveling north on Interstate 55 that Tuesday night, alone and with her seat belt fastened. She was driving to the family home in Leopold and weather conditions were good.

"It wasn't a rainy or foggy night," Sheila Irvin said. "There was nothing that would have caused trouble for Kelly while she was driving."

At almost 9 p.m., Kelly Irvin's trip home literally took a turn for the worse. When she was about four miles north of Benton, Mo., something caused her car to veer sharply to the right and go into a spin. The left side of the car crashed into the guardrail.

"We're still not sure what happened," Sheila Irvin said. "One report said there were deer in the area, and maybe she tried to miss one."

Kelly Irvin can't remember what happened that night.

"I was knocked out," she said. "The accident and the whole year leading up to it are things that are gone from my memory. I'm just grateful I didn't die."

Sheila Irvin recalled getting a phone call from the Missouri State Highway Patrol.

"They said Kelly had been involved in an accident and was being transported by ambulance to Saint Francis," she said. "My husband Jeff and I were stunned."

When the Irvins arrived at the hospital, they learned Kelly was in a coma with traumatic brain injury.

"There was something called 'brain bleeds' going on," Sheila Irvin said. "She also had a fractured pelvis and lacerations."

Medical procedures were applied to stabilize Kelly Irvin's condition, and she was put on a ventilator. The next 72 hours were critical.

"We prayed for Kelly nonstop," Sheila Irvin said. "It was truly a frightening experience, but we had faith that she would come out of her injuries. We had that faith."

The following Thursday, a CT scan showed no changes in Kelly Irvin's condition. To Sheila Irvin, that was a good thing.

"The tests showed no decrease in her condition," she said. "It showed that Kelly was holding her own."

Kelly Irvin was transferred April 5 to Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. While there, Kelly came out the coma, but with her brain injury she was far from out of the woods.

"At that point, we were unsure what kind of progress Kelly would make," Sheila Irvin said. "We would talk to her, but in her semiconscious state she wasn't making a lot of sense. We didn't know if she was going to improve or stay that way for a long time."

After being treated at Barnes, on April 14 Kelly Irvin was transferred to Mercy Rehabilitation Hospital in St. Louis. It was there she began speech therapy and learned to do many things again, such as walking.

"It was like watching her progress to adulthood all over again," her mother said.

Kelly Irvin celebrated her 24th birthday while at Mercy, and her rehabilitation was made all the more pleasant by visits from her parents, friends and her little sister Jill.

"It meant so much to me to have the visits," Kelly Irvin said. "My fiance Chris was also with me every chance he had. He still is."

Although she still was struggling with her short-term memory and a case of double-vision, Kelly Irvin's condition improved at Mercy to the point at which doctors decided she should receive treatment closer to home. Kelly returned to Leopold to the delight of her friends and family, but she also was scheduled for six more weeks of rehabilitation at a National HealthCare Corporation facility in Kennett, Mo.

"It was on an outpatient basis," Sheila Irvin said. "But she made great strides there. There was a noticeable change."

"It was like a switch went off in my brain," Kelly Irvin added. "I was able to remember more and do more things."

In August, her occupational therapist recommended that it was time for Kelly to get back into a familiar environment: Saint Francis Medical Center. It was arranged for her to shadow a nurse at the hospital and work her way back into the routine.

"I was a registered nurse at Saint Francis for two years before my accident," Kelly Irvin said. "I was in the labor-delivery department, and I remembered basically everything. The only adjustments I had to make were for changes that had been made while I was away."

Kelly Irvin shadowed for three months until she was cleared to work on her own Nov. 26, and her first 12-hour shift will be Christmas Day. But on Christmas Eve, the parishioners at St. John Catholic Church will be able to see for themselves the improvement she's made during the year.

"I was determined to play at the midnight Mass," Kelly Irvin said. "I remembered the organ pretty well, and I played at my uncle Stan's funeral and at my cousin's wedding when I got back home. I'll be sharing the organ with someone on Christmas Eve, but I'll be ready to play my songs."

Kelly Irvin still has to see doctors in Cape Girardeau for her short-term memory problems and double-vision. They have never told her that she'll make a full recovery, but, at best, a good recovery.

"We think she's gone beyond that," Sheila Irvin said. "We're grateful for that, and we're also grateful for all of the prayers we have received that lifted us up. We're grateful to God for blessing Kelly."

Kelly Irvin also is grateful.

"My family and friends have been great to me throughout all of this," she said. "The experience has made me believe in the power of prayer even more. I know for sure that miracles do happen."



Pertinent address:

103 Main St., Leopold, Mo.

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