Long, hard road to graduation
by Gregory R. Norfleet · News · January 25, 2013

Kathy Slach lay on her back, suffering from a brain injury after falling off her horse while fox hunting in the middle of a thousand-acre field. Her heart stopped. Her lips turned black.

It was November 1999. The damage to her occipital lobe — the visual processing section of the brain — would change her life forever and start a 13-year journey that eventually would lead her to earn a college degree at 62 years old.

But the hunting accident would turn out to be just the first in a series of unfortunate — yet mostly unrelated — events. Events that made earning that degree much more challenging, yet all the more satisfying.

And inspiring.

Back to thousand-acre field.

Thankfully, Slach hunted with a group which included her daughter, Shannon Bain, who began mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Another person used a cell phone to call an emergency room doctor hunting in another group nearby. He was on the scene within a minute cutting through Slach’s $6,000 in formal riding clothes in an effort to get her heart going again.

Air Care carried Slach to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. She survived, but recovery would take years, starting with regular monthly visits to a neurologist.

Memory tests, puzzles and drawings during those visits caused her great frustration.

“I started bawling,” she said. “I told (the doctor) ‘I don’t want to do this!’”

The emotional strain sent her into depression, so she began seeing a psychiatrist as well. She would see both doctors regularly for the next three years.

Slach, business manager for West Branch Community Schools, left that job in 2001.

“I was able to do the job,” she said. “But it was mentally exhausting.”

Soon she got a job working four hours a day at ACT as a receptionist.

Kathy would often become forgetful and have difficulty communicating, which she felt contributed to her divorce. Six years after her accident, and after 30 years of marriage, she found herself on her own and moving into an apartment on the east side of the city.

About that time, Slach’s neurologist suggested she enroll in a class.

“You need to make your brain work,” he told her.

Slach already had a degree from the University of Iowa, but that was from the late 1960s. So she enrolled in 2007 at Kirkwood Community College, taking online courses.

“I didn’t want to be in class with 18-year-olds,” she said. “Their minds are quick!”

And, to combat the empty feeling in her apartment, she got two English bulldogs — Olivia and JuJu.

“It’s hard to come home to a dark house,” she said. “It’s very difficult to not have someone at home you can just vent to.”

Slach said taking classes with or without memory problems, “takes discipline and desire,” but she earned her associates degree in 2009, finishing with A’s and B’s in her classes.

Her family attended her graduation from Kirkwood, and she knew then that she liked it so much she wanted to continue.

She enrolled at UI, and though she started on probation, it only lasted one semester.

“Somehow I got in,” she said, “and got off probation.”

Her major was applied studies. She wanted a bachelor’s degree.

“It is a very liberal degree,” she said, with a mix of psychology and literature.

Again, she took online courses.

One winter, she slipped and fell on the ice, breaking her left arm in three places. The break required surgery to place pins in her arms. One of her top concerns was how she was going to continue to take her classes. She thought she would have to ask a family member to type papers for her.

“I’m right-handed, so it was OK” getting through day-to-day chores, she said.

And she figured out a way to do the typing on her own as well.

“I overcame a broken arm,” she said.

But, no, her troubles did not end there.

Months later, she awoke one morning to find the right side of her face paralyzed. She called her doctor, who had her try a couple things, like puffing her cheeks out, but only the left side would move. He told her to come in immediately.

Slach did, and was soon diagnosed with Bell’s palsy.

Her doctor was encouraging, she said, telling her they “caught it in time” and that any damage was “reversible.” Kathy was prescribed some medications to help.

“If I get really tired, my right eye droops,” Slach said. “But I’ve (otherwise) come through that.”

Still taking classes, she moved from an apartment to a house not too far from her apartment.

Slach would face yet another challenge, though, one for which there rarely a cure. In the fall of 2010, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

But after all she had been through in the last several years, her reaction was different than the familiar foreboding most patients feel when they hear the word “cancer.”

“This was just an annoyance,” she remembers telling her sister. “What about my classes, though?”

Annoyance or not, Slach endured two surgeries and began five-day-a-week radiation treatments, for 37 treatments in all.

“It was a tiny tumor,” Kathy said. “Nothing was going to stop me from taking my classes.”

However, Slach saw something else in the cancer — something cumulative, even … symbolic.

“It would have been easy to drop the ball and sit in a corner and say ‘I don’t care anymore,” she said.

But from the initial brain injury, the divorce, moving twice, the broken arm and the Bell’s palsy, Slach said it seemed like “it was all centered in the breast cancer.”

“’OK,’ I said. This amounts to everything over the past 10 years,” she remembers thinking. “We’ll get it out and we’ll be good.”

As of this writing, she’s been cancer-free for three years.

And on Dec. 15, 2012, Slach walked across the stage to receive her bachelors degree from UI. About 20 members of her family came to cheer her on.

“Talk is cheap,” Slach said. “It’s OK to encourage people, but to see somebody doing it — I think that is shocking to my granddaughters.”

Slach said the years since falling off that horse have been very hard.

“Thank goodness — my classes gave me a focus,” she said. “I was so distraught and overwhelmed (especially with the divorce) it was devastating.”

The divorce settlement left her “comfortable” financially, she said, and she was nearing retirement. But she was alone while recovering and enduring more health and emotional issues.

Olivia died last year, so now it’s just her and JuJu and the remnant symptoms of her brain injury of 1999. She recently noticed that an almost constant throbbing pain in her head, which has bothered her for more than a decade, seems to have disappeared.

She still is uneasy driving after dark, but looks back and her life and sees “a totally different person now.”

“I believe in myself” again, she said. “I can think critically. … and I’m much happier.”

She is off anti-depressants and no longer seeing either the psychiatrist or neurologist.

Kathy still works at ACT, and her employer has even offered her a full-time job.

“Having a college degree opens a lot of doors,” she said.

So what’s next? Slach said she is not quite sure.

“So much free time is not good for anyone,” she said. “Especially without a healthy brain.”

ACT wrote a brief story about her in the company newsletter, which prompted some co-workers to approach her about overcoming personal challenges. She was glad to encourage them.

“Not a lot were aware I was going through this,” she said.

Slach said she is interested in possibly volunteering at the crisis pregnancy center, pursuing a masters degree or even attending law school. One of her college professors encouraged her to considering writing, which intrigued her as she has “devoured books” since 6 years old.

“I will continue to work,” she said. “It gets me out of the house. For my health, I must keep doing something.”

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