COLUMBIA — Kelsi Poe's 21st birthday on Friday didn't include doing shots, slamming beers or sucking down margaritas.
Instead, she'll be celebrating it Sunday in a quiet gathering with her family at her grandmother's house.
She turned 20 last year on the day she was released from Rusk Rehabilitation Center. She'd been there and at University Hospital off and on since September 2010, when she fell about 15 feet over a stair railing at Quinton's Bar and Deli, a popular college bar in downtown Columbia.
"Alcohol is the reason it happened,” she said. "That was the only reason it happened."
She had been drunk before, Poe said, though drinking wasn't a habit. She didn't have fake identification, didn't usually drink in bars, she said. She doesn't remember consuming alcohol at all that day. But when she fell, her blood alcohol concentration was .32 — four times the legal limit for driving.
In the weeks following the accident, Poe's attorney, Ron Netemeyer, filed motions to make sure both Harpo’s and Quinton’s would preserve video and audio from the day Poe fell. The family reached a financial settlement with Quinton’s in June, said Morris Poe, Kelsi Poe's father. No litigation has been filed against Harpo's, though he said that's not outside the realm of possibility.
Now, Sept. 4, 2010, is a fog. People either don't remember or don't want to talk about it. The first part of the day is still clear in Poe's mind: She went to lunch at Harpo’s with some friends and her sister, Angie Rogers, who was visiting. She remembers ordering a salad. They ate, and then Poe walked her sister to the car to say goodbye. The last thing she remembers is walking back into Harpo's to rejoin her friends.
Caleb Rich remembers the worst part.
Rich, 23 at the time, graduated from MU in 2009 with a degree in engineering and moved to Nashville, Tenn. He was in Columbia visiting friends, Poe among them. He was part of the lunch group at Harpo's.
At some point, the group went to Quinton’s. Poe's best friend, Stephanie Piontek, remembers it being “all just spur of the moment,” but she was drinking and doesn't remember the details. Neither woman, both 19 at the time, was carded. Rich said Poe seemed fine — her usual self.
They started down the stairs, which have a total height of about 20 feet from the second-floor bar to the concrete ground floor with three landings separating the steel stairways. Rich was in the lead.
Thinking the others were behind him, he left Quinton's and began to cross the street.
He heard a scream.
Piontek ran outside. “She fell,” she yelled. “She fell! She fell!”
Rich bolted into Quinton’s.
There Poe was, on the floor. Her face was white. There was blood. Her head was twisted — it looked like a neck injury.
“I didn’t know what to do other than react,” Rich said.
He’d been a lifeguard for five years, and though he wasn’t CPR certified anymore, he knew what to do. He didn’t want to make a possible neck injury worse by touching Poe. But he had to.
He checked her pulse and breathing. Nothing.
He stabilized her neck and head in his arms, then adjusted her body.
Fifteen compressions, two breaths. Fifteen compressions, two breaths.
Between breaths he called out for someone to call an ambulance.
Another bystander who knew CPR started to help. He took over compressions so Rich could continue the breaths. The ambulance arrived fast, and Poe was carried away on a stretcher. It was about 5 p.m.
Meanwhile, in Moberly, Poe’s mom, Stacey Hawkes, was visiting her sister. Her phone rang, but she didn’t answer because she was in the middle of something. Minutes later, she listened to a voice mail from one of her daughter’s friends. It was about her daughter.
When she called back, the friend answered and a police officer got on the phone. Her daughter had been in an accident, he said. She’d fallen and had not regained consciousness. Hawkes got in the car and drove to Columbia.
She called the rest of the family. But she knew they had to travel, so she limited the details: Kelsi had an accident, and she was at the hospital receiving care.
Poe's dad, a retired highway patrol trooper, arrived at the emergency room. But his daughter wasn't there. Someone told him she was in the intensive care unit. That's when he knew it was bad.
"I've seen a lot of carnage on the highways in the state of Missouri," he said. "But it’s different when it’s your own kid.”
The whole family came. Her two sisters arrived quickly. Her brother flew in from Chicago the next day. Poe's parents came together for their daughter. Hospital staff would later express their surprise when they learned that the Poes had been divorced for about 15 years.
"We cried on each other's shoulders every day," Poe's mom said.
Poe's softball coach from Columbia College, Wendy Spratt, was notified of Poe's accident that night. She went to the hospital, where she could often be found in the next several months.
Poe's best friend and roommate, Piontek, was also with Poe throughout the recovery process. Piontek withdrew from the first eight weeks of classes at Columbia College, so she could spend more time at the hospital.
The day after the accident, more than 600 people came to the hospital wanting to see Poe. Her family came up with a code word, so only people who knew her best would be allowed in. There was one exception: religious leaders. It didn't matter what denomination they were affiliated with; if they would pray for Poe, they were welcome.
Poe had fractured her neck — cervical vertebrae 4, 5 and 6 — and suffered a traumatic brain injury and respiratory failure. She had a lacerated spleen, a collapsed lung and a lacerated toe. The third night in the hospital, her brain was so swollen the doctors had to take off most of the left side of her skull, from her sinus to just behind the ear. That part of her head was just brain and skin. Squishy, her mom said.
The doctors stored the removed piece of skull in Poe’s abdomen, where it would stay until it was reattached the next month. That way, it would receive blood flow.
On Sept. 16, after 12 days in a coma, Poe opened her eyes. But she wasn’t aware of her surroundings, and she couldn’t remember what happened. Nor could she speak.
Every day, Poe’s mom explained it: You fell. There’s a part of your skull that’s in your abdomen right now, but they’ll take it out and put it back. But that just confused Poe. She thought that meant she was pregnant. Her mom would calm her and explain again.
One of the few things she can recall of the next two months is the first time she wrote her name.
It was Sept. 30, and she was in an ambulance being transferred from the surgical intensive care unit at University Hospital to Rusk Rehabilitation Center. On the way, she signed her own paperwork: “K. Poe.”
After that, Poe wrote a lot. “Call mom” was the most frequent phrase. Mom was never far.
The first stay at Rusk was a short one — fewer than 48 hours. Poe had a feeding tube, and she regurgitated some food into her lungs. Back she went into intensive care at University Hospital.
On Oct. 7, the piece of skull in Poe’s abdomen was reattached to her head. A few days later, she was transferred to a different hospital. This time, it was Landmark Hospital, a long-term, acute care hospital that was better equipped to handle her respiratory problems.
Her first day there, she met with a speech therapist. Poe had a tracheostomy, or a tube in her throat to open the airway to her lungs, but the therapist covered it up so Poe could try to talk. She hadn’t uttered so much as a moan or a groan. That day, she spoke her first words.
“My name’s Kelsi Poe, and I’m mad,” she said.
She had a voice — a hard and raspy one — but had to relearn speech.
But on Oct. 13, the same day Poe spoke, she almost suffocated because of a breathing tube problem. Poe’s mom reached for the medical equipment; a nurse for 28 years, she knew how to use it. After she cleaned her daughter’s airway, a respiratory therapist came in to help.
“Her mom saved her life,” Poe’s dad said.
That night, Poe was brought back to intensive care at University Hospital, but only until Oct. 20, when she was readmitted to Rusk for the last time.
On Dec. 2, after 89 days of hospital care, Poe was going home. Hospital staff lined the hallway, applauding and cheering, as Poe stepped out of the elevator and walked out of the hospital.
The tube in her airway had been removed in November. On Jan. 3, she ate.
"I remember the first time she ate by herself," Poe’s dad said. "Of all places, she wanted to go to Fazoli's and have fettuccine."
For Poe’s dad, specific moments stand out: the time she squeezed his hand while she was still in a coma; the first time she sneezed; the first time therapists helped her out of bed to take her first steps. But for the most part, the months his daughter spent in the hospital are a blur.
Except in photographs. From day one, the family has taken pictures of Poe. It’s a way of seeing her progress, of watching her heal. Some days, it’s easy to see the changes.
Other days, it’s hard to see improvements. “You live with yourself every day,” Poe said. Photos and videos give her a way to look back and see the progress. They also help her regain those two months of lost memories.
The 'New Kelsi'
Although she’s recovered physical and mental capabilities, Poe isn’t the same. “Sometimes we still grieve for the loss of the child we have,” her mom said. Her family talks about “Old Kelsi” and “New Kelsi.”
Old Kelsi had a quick wit and joked often. New Kelsi, as her mom puts it, is more “literal.” When she made a joke a couple months ago, it was a big deal.
Old Kelsi was talkative, social, comedic. New Kelsi is calm, steady, quiet.
Faith was important to Old Kelsi, but it means more to New Kelsi. “There’s no way I would be where I am ...” she said, trailing off.
“Without God,” her mother finished.
Old Kelsi could smell and taste. New Kelsi can’t tell one smell from another. If something has a strong flavor — really sour, really sweet, really spicy — she can taste it a little.
“I can’t even explain what I taste,” she said. “I just," she paused, "can’t.”
Old Kelsi had different priorities: softball, boyfriends, then education. The New Kelsi’s priorities go something like this: education and spiritual life, softball, and her relationship — a new one. She has made her new priorities clear to her new boyfriend. Sometimes, they study together.
New Kelsi wishes she had always cared this much about school. This fall, she took six credit hours at Columbia College and spent five hours a day studying. It takes her a long time to process information. But it's also because she wants to study hard.
This spring, Poe plans to take nine credit hours. If that goes well, she might take 12 credit hours in fall 2012, which would make her a full-time student.
She also might be able to start living away from her parents again. Her doctor cleared her for driving, and now, she needs to take a test with an instructor.
She's still deciding on a career goal; she's thinking sports medicine or maybe physical therapy. Even Old Kelsi wanted to do something in the medical field.
Old Kelsi had a different voice. New Kelsi’s voice is lower. After the accident, it was hard for her to listen to the old voice mail greeting on her phone. But getting rid of it would be like getting rid of the girl she used to be.
The decision was eventually made for her when Poe got a new phone. She set a new greeting and lost part of her old self. It was one of the hardest losses.
“That was all we had left,” her mom said.
Poe still doesn’t like her new voice, though it’s getting smoother.
She knows she's a new person, and with that comes a desire to meet new people — people who don’t know the way she was before and won’t make comparisons.
Brandon Doosing, a 24-year-old agriculture education student at MU, is one of those people. Like Poe, Doosing suffered a traumatic brain injury and is still recovering. He was in a car accident in January 2010. His car was totaled, and he was lucky to live.
Poe and Doosing found each other through their mothers, who have a mutual friend. They first connected on Facebook. When they met in person for the first time, they hugged and chatted with ease like old friends, comparing injuries. They understood each other and didn't know what the other had been like before the accident.
Piontek is still Poe's best friend. They met in English class during their freshman year at Helias High School in Jefferson City. Despite different living styles — Poe was organized, Piontek not so much — they remained close as roommates. Now, they go to lunch at Cafe Berlin most Fridays with Poe's dad. They talk about their dream homes, shopping for jeans and about Poe’s marbled fingernail polish.
Poe remains a vegetarian, mostly because she loves animals. The Beatles are still her favorite band. She's still the lone Chicago Cubs fan in a Cardinals family.
She’s always loved softball, still does. The family has often said she was “born in left field.” She started playing when she was 10 and played through high school and into college. When she transferred to Columbia College from Lincoln University in 2010, Poe joined the team as a walk-on. Spratt first told Poe she had to try out for one week, but after the second day, Spratt told her she'd made it. Softball is part of her identity.
“Softball has kept Kelsi going,” her dad said.
Doctors said she recovered so well, in part, because she was in great physical condition.
Shortly after Poe was out of a coma, Poe and Spratt threw a Hacky Sack back and forth in the hospital room. Poe didn't always catch it at first, but when she did, people were surprised she had enough coordination. Throwing wasn't as hard. Eventually, they switched to a softball. Poe hid it under the blankets and beneath her leg when doctors came in so they wouldn't take the ball away.
Now, she’s the student manager of the Columbia College softball team. She travels with the team and films the games, but she can’t play — yet.
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to play,” she said, tears falling. “But I want to."
Spratt has been working with Poe. “The coach won’t give up on it,” Poe’s mom said.
Poe’s been pushing herself. On Wednesday, she ran on the treadmill for one minute. She had to hold on, but it was still a run. She’s also working on her batting skills, practicing with a tee.
Her drive to improve is nothing new.
At first, her mom had to urge her out of bed, and Poe sometimes slipped her shoes off after the therapist tied them because she didn’t want to get up. But when she did get up, Poe refused to use a wheelchair on her way to therapy. The two long hallways felt like 800 miles. On a scale of 1 to 10, her pain was often a 10 — especially the headaches. But three times a day, she got up and walked.
Although Poe was discharged from therapy at Rusk, she wanted to keep going. Now, she gets free physical therapy and occupational therapy through MU Health Care.
“I get the feeling as a ballplayer, you were quite the go-getter,” therapist Jeff Krug said during one of their recent sessions. Poe nodded. Her arms shook gently as she knelt on a rocking board, squeezing her lips together as she concentrated on the balancing exercise.
Afterward, in occupational therapy, Giuli Krug watched Poe do some visual scanning exercises. The wife of Jeff Krug and the director of the Occupational Therapy Adult Clinic, Krug’s specialty is the brain.
"Her recovery, in my opinion, is nothing short of miraculous," she said. Based on Poe’s recovery so far, Giuli Krug is optimistic for her future: “I’m a believer in 'never say never' when it comes to the brain.”
Brain injury doesn't just affect the part of the head that was hurt, Giuli Krug said. "It really can affect everything," she said.
Beneath the "miraculous" recovery, beneath the victory, there's the inescapable reminder of why Poe is recovering in the first place.
“What happened was a pretty crazy thing,” she said.
Until recently, Poe hadn’t seen Quinton’s, and she didn’t remember what it looked like. One day while they were in town, she and her mom decided to drive past it. For her mom, it brought flashbacks and sadness.
For Poe, Quinton’s is a curiosity. “I find it interesting to see the place and to view the things that happened,” she said. She wants to see the preserved video footage from that night. She wants to understand more.
She thinks about the fact that she could have died. She’s certain there are many reasons she’s alive, and she’s out to uncover all of them.
One of them is talking to high school students about underage drinking and overcoming challenges. "I want to teach people," she said.
She doesn't plan to drink again, at least not anytime soon. She doesn't want to do anything that would slow her recovery.
And it's easier for her to say no to things, now.
As her niece said one day: "That's my Aunt Kelsi. She fell down and changed."