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Grace & Grit: The Kelli Bright Burke Story

story by cindy reid    photography by susan deloach

On June 24, 2009, five of us were involved in a car accident that none of us should have survived. The car flipped numerous times, throwing three of us out of the vehicle and onto the road way. I was thrown about 50 feet, breaking numerous bones and damaging my spinal cord paralyzing me from the chest down. I have been confined to a wheelchair with no feeling or movement from the chest down for exactly seven years. That day should have ruined my life and crushed my ability to live normal again… but it didn’t. “Kelli Bright Burke

At the beginning of that summer day in 2009 Kelli was a happy sixteen year old girl. Born and raised in Beaufort, SC, she is the youngest of parents Faith and Gary Bright’s three children (sister Shannon and brother Danny) and was on summer break at Battery Creek High School. A talented athlete, Kelli was on the varsity cheerleading and softball teams. In fact she had just finished cheerleading camp a few days before. She was hoping to get a sport scholarship for college in a couple of years.

By the end of the day she was in an Intensive Care Unit in Columbia, SC where she would remain for the next two weeks.

By the end of the day her life had changed permanently and profoundly.

ANGELS ALONG THE WAY

Visiting a friend in Sumter, SC for a week, Kelli and five others had gotten together to go retrieve a duffle bag that had been left in Columbia. It was 2:30 in the afternoon and they were fifteen minutes away from the house she was visiting. The driver fell asleep and went off of the roadway. In the attempt to get back onto the highway the car started to flip ejecting the driver and two of the passengers, Kelli being one of them. She was injured the most.

Kelli says, “After I was thrown from the car I landed fifty feet away on the other side of the road. A man driving by saw it happen and pulled over. He ran to me while other drivers called in the accident and checked on the other passengers. I was the only one conscious so he stayed with me in the road, talking and getting information from me. He asked me what my name was, where I was from, who my parents were, and kept me talking so I wouldn’t lose consciousness. He asked me to say the Lord’s Prayer with him and I did. He stayed with me the whole time and until they put me in the ambulance. That’s when he called Beaufort information to track down my parents.”

Her dad Gary got the call. Gary Bright is a Burton Fire Department commissioner who has been a firefighter for thirty six years. The man who stayed with his daughter and tracked her parents down was a former firefighter. He told Gary how serious Kelli’s injury appeared to be. But it wasn’t until they pulled up to the hospital that Gary told his wife. There their worst fears were confirmed by the doctors.

The medical news was devastating. She was going in and out of consciousness with a closed skull fracture. Her collarbone was broken. Her hand was broken in so many pieces that it would be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle to reconstruct. All of her ribs on the right side were broken, one puncturing her lung and collapsing it. As feared, Kelli had suffered a spinal cord injury, breaking her back between the T4 and T5 vertebrae. She would never walk again.

Her mother Faith says, “There are so many emotions when you first find out. You think ‘what will her life be like?’ and you have no idea.” When Kelli regained consciousness her family told her what had happened (she has no memory of the accident) and her diagnosis.

One of Kelli’s ICU caregivers was a “gruff ex Marine nurse who was very strict about visiting times with my family. One night he was in my room and I asked him, “Is it true I will never walk again?’ and he said yes it was true. I said ‘bummer’ and turned over to go back to sleep. He just lost it and after that he was an angel to us.”

Kelli and her family credit the Shepherd Center in Atlanta, which specializes in spinal cord and brain injury rehabilitation, with teaching her and her parents how to live with this new reality. Faith says, “We learned everything there, because we knew nothing about how to care for her or what we should do. They were absolutely wonderful.” While at Shepherd Kelli was taken on field trips and forced to navigate obstacles in her wheelchair. She says “It sounds mean but they would shut a door in my face and I would have to figure out how to open it, they would take me to stores and I would have to get in and out by myself.” Faith says, “I don’t think she would be where she is if she hadn’t been there.” Kelli agrees, “They taught me how to live life again on my own.”

While Kelli was in the hospital, family and friends back in Beaufort got busy. Gary says, “My brother in law asked if there was anything he could do to help out and I said we will need the doors in the house widened and the floor changed in one part so Kelli could get around the house in her wheelchair when she got home.” Busy themselves with Kelli’s care; the family didn’t know what was happening back home until someone told Faith to look at a news story online. She says, “We looked at the story and there were all these volunteers working on our house, completely remodeling the downstairs for Kelli. It was beautiful – and a total surprise!” The volunteers put in a brand new handicapped accessible kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and family room on the lower level.

Later on fundraisers were held and the Beaufort community raised $30,000 for a paramobile ‘stand up” wheelchair, which enables Kelli to stand up and participate in outdoor activities such as golf, fishing, corn-hole, and so much more! With money from the fundraisers, Kelli was also able to get a manual stand up chair that she is able to use indoors. With this, she is able to get around like she does in her regular chair and while using a pump, raise herself to a standing position, freeing her from only seeing the world from the sitting position.

Angels along the way were everywhere.

INSPIRED TO BE INSPIRATIONAL

“In the past seven years, I have graduated from high school, went to college, lived in the dorm rooms, graduated from college, met an amazing man, married that amazing man, gone on the best honeymoon ever, and just have lived life to the absolute fullest while touching so many lives in the process and I am thankful for that and every hard time and struggle I have gone through in these past seven years, because it has brought me to here. Living a life I love, able to do anything I want to do because I have not let the accident or my wheelchair change who I am or how I’m going to live. “Kelli Bright Burke.

Although the accident changed Kelli’s life profoundly, who she is did not change. She remained the same high achieving athletic young woman she had always been. She says, “My accident made me grow up. But I am still Kelli, whether I am using a wheelchair or not, I am the same person.” She was determined to resume her life and return to school.  Kelli says, “I wanted to graduate with my high school class. I had only missed three weeks of school and I wanted to go back and graduate with my friends.”

So every day Faith would drive Kelli to school and her friends would push her from class to class since at that time she could not push herself due to her hand and collar bone injuries. The school dedicated its first home football game to her and for the next year she stayed with her varsity cheerleading and softball teams, keeping the books for softball and helping out with the cheerleading from the side.

With her grit and determination Kelli was able to graduate right on schedule with her class, Battery Creek High School Class of 2011. At the graduation ceremony she wheeled herself with her class across the athletic field .She says, “I put duct tape along the bottom of my shoes so my feet wouldn’t drag on the grass!”

Faith says “Kelli has always had such a positive attitude and has from day one.” Kelli says” For me it was the support I have, from my family and friends and from the community, which got me to where I am today. If I was to get upset about my situation, it would be worse for them. If I am mad or upset, time will go on anyway, so there is no point. I am extremely lucky in so many ways, and although I may have the ‘right’ to be upset, so many people have it worse and it could have been worse for me.” She continues, “There is almost nothing I can’t do with a little help.” She laughs, “Even if I have to ask a stranger!”

Always Moving Forward

After high school Kelli went to the University of South Carolina Beaufort, at the Bluffton location, living in the dorms for two years. She graduated this year with a BA in Communications Studies.

In 2013 Kelli met Justin Burke at her own birthday party, thrown by her cousin. Although both Kelli and Justin had spent their lives in Beaufort, their paths had never crossed. There was an immediate spark and that night Justin messaged Kelli on Facebook and invited her and her cousin over to what he called his “regular Sunday get together”. Kelli laughs, “Turns out there had never been any Sunday get together before, and he invented it to have a reason to invite us over!” A week later they were dating.

Eight months later Justin arranged to have his and Kelli’s families get together for a big group portrait. Everyone got dressed up and met at the river front behind Beaufort Memorial Hospital. Kelli was sitting on a bench waiting for the next round of photographs, when Justin got down on one knee .He proposed that they spend the rest of their lives together and so they became engaged. Their families roared, giving them a standing ovation. There was not a dry eye to be found. They were married on May 14, 2016.

The couple enjoys being active and outdoors. They golf, fish and go hunting. As fitting for a Beaufort girl Kelli loves the water. She says, “I love swimming, it is good for me and good for my body.” She also goes snorkeling, kayaking and enjoys riding her bike. Kelli works at Beaufort Family Dentistry and says, “It’s great, my co-workers are amazing!” Justin works at Beaufort Jasper Water and Sewer Authority, where he has been for nine years. The happy couple is in the process of building a house completely accessible for Kelli and look forward to starting a family.

BEAUFORT LIFESTYLE

“So today is a day that I look back, and not think about the negative side of my situation, but about the fact that the five of us survived a terrible accident seven years ago, and that I am beyond lucky that things were not worse. I came so close to losing it all, so I’m going to continue living life like I have it all. Because in my perspective I do.” Kelli Bright Burke, on the seven year anniversary of her accident, June 24, 2016.

When asked if she would ever leave Beaufort Kelli shakes her head firmly ‘no’. she says, “My friends and family and the town, it is the Beaufort lifestyle that got me through this and pushes me to stay inspirational. Right now my life is perfect. “She breaks out in a grin “It doesn’t get any better than this.”

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