“Though she be but little, she is fierce.” – Shakespeare in A Midsummer Night’s Dream
From a friend’s post on Kelli Zupke’s CaringBridge page
Cross Creek Stables is Kelli Zupke’s second home. She loves roaming the trails, rolling hills and pasture on the 210-acre property in Cologne – always on her 6-year-old thoroughbred, Jackson. That’s where she was on Halloween day, enjoying a windy, but mild October day with a friend and their horses.
Suddenly, a rush of wind caused a moment of confusion for Jackson and the spooked animal reared up and bucked Kelli from her saddle. Kelli landed hard and even though she was wearing a helmet and other safety gear, she lay unconscious.
Kelli, 56, who has taught at Forest Hills Elementary School in Eden Prairie for 18 years, was rushed to Hennepin County Medical Center where she was diagnosed with a traumatic brain injury (TBI). Three weeks later, Kelli is undergoing intense physical, occupational and speech therapy at KNAAP Rehabilitation Center in Minneapolis.
Her husband, Tim, has spent every day at his wife’s bedside helping with therapy when he can, and recording every moment in his detailed CaringBridge posts most nights. Tim has been a special education teacher at Little Eagles Preschool in Eden Prairie since 2007. Tim and Kelli live in Carver. Kelli has two sons from a previous marriage, Sage, 20, and Samuel, who turned 18 in the midst of his mom’s recovery.
“Later on in the afternoon I decided to play some music for Kelli on my laptop…The first song I played was “It’s Your Love” by Tim McGraw & Faith Hill. Almost 30 seconds in to the song, Kelli began singing along, mouthing the words to the refrain!”
From Tim Zupke’s CaringBridge post on Nov. 14
“The first week she was basically in a coma,” said her sister-in-law Jessica Zupke. “Towards the end of the first week she was squeezing some hands, but very minor.” Only when doctors were able to remove her from a ventilator and fit her with a tracheotomy that she turned the corner, she said.
Kelli’s passion for horses began at a young age. She got her first horse – a bouncing one – at age 6 and has been riding ever since. She started riding real horses in 4th grade and her parents bought her first horse when she was 12.
Just two years ago she bought Jackson. “He’s a huge horse for her size,” Jessica said. “But it’s not that she couldn’t handle him. He’s just big and muscular.”
Horses are known to be spooked by high winds, Jessica said, because if affects their hearing. What happened that day was nothing she hadn’t experienced with him before, she said. Kelli’s friend was turning her horse at that moment and didn’t see exactly what happened.
Since the accident, Kelli has had difficulty moving the right side of her body and she struggles to communicate effectively. Her doctor explained that with TBI, some nerves in the brain get “twisted” and it takes time to slowly re-wire themselves, according to one of Tim’s CaringBridge posts. Kelli’s progress may fluctuate and plateau. But Kelli has continued to improve each day.
“Baby steps from the outside looking in, but in the brain injury world, huge jumps,” Jessica said.
Kelli will be discharged from KNAAP in mid December. No one is sure right now if she will go home or to another rehabilitation facility. Either way, Jessica said, it’s a good sign.
“Kelli is loving listening to music, watching videos and talking. TALKING! She talked about Sage and Samuel, teaching and horseback riding to everyone who came into the room today.”
CaringBridge entry by Kelli’s sister, Chris, visiting from Chicago
Both Tim and Jessica were effusive in their thanks to everyone who has offered prayers and support – from colleagues to family to friends to former students. Kelli’s colleagues at Forest Hills produced a 30-minute video of well wishes from staff members.
“Kelli was able to see it this week…and she was just smiling ear-to-ear,” Jessica said. Forest Hills staff members also have been involved in providing meals for Tim and donating on her GoFundMe page.
Tim is the defensive coordinator at Mayer Lutheran High School and his players spent a day raking Tim and Kelli’s yard and preparing the property for winter.
“They did a beautiful job!” Jessica said. His coaching colleagues also have donated gift baskets and gift cards.
“Dear Mrs. Zupke, When I heard about how you fell off of your horse I was nervous and scared. My mom and dad are updating me about your improvements. I hope you can get better soon. Bye, Henry.”
A note from a former elementary student on Kelli’s CaringBridge page
Kelli’s CaringBridge site contains dozens of captivating moments during the time she has been in the hospital. Some frightening, but mostly hopeful. Many posts call her “tough” and “a fighter.” One entry written by Tim 11 days after the accident seems to capture those attributes as well as another side of her.
Kelli was working with her physical therapist on standing upright. She was struggling and the therapist asked her what other things she liked other than horses. With Kelli still unable to respond easily, Tim said she like teaching, running…and dancing.
Prompted by the therapist to play some music on his laptop, Tim cued up a song by country music trio BlackHawk. Then the therapist told Tim to take Kelli’s hand.
“For 10 minutes and two songs, Kelli was upright and dancing with me,” Tim wrote. “Gently swaying side to side, but dancing!” And, he said, with a huge smile on her face.
“Thank you all again for the prayers, well wishes and love/support you are showing for Kelli. It means a lot to our family…just know you all are RockStars in our eyes now and forever.”
Tim’s CaringBridge post, Nov. 20
A GoFundMe page has been set up for Kelli and Tim here
To purchase a “Kelli’s Fearless Fight” t-shirt, go to http://bit.ly/kellisfearless