Student's struggle after serious accident culminates with commencement

University Park, Pa. — Few people have been as close to death as Katie Sharkey and survived. Now, years after her terrible accident, Sharkey is filled with determination, optimism and hope.

On April 7, 2002, Sharkey, then age 16, and her friend were driving back from a State College Area High School rugby match. Their car went off the road around a sharp bend, spun around, hit a tree and crumpled. Sharkey’s head slammed into the side of the car upon impact, and she was knocked unconscious. She had to be flown by helicopter to Altoona, where the nearest Trauma I Center was located.

“When she arrived at the hospital, doctors didn’t give her a chance to live,” said Neil Sharkey, Katie’s father and associate dean for research and graduate education for the College of Health and Human Development.

Sharkey was completely unconscious for the week following the accident. For the next several months, she was in a semi-conscious coma. Doctors weren’t sure if she would recover, but slowly, she began to respond more.

Her brain was so badly damaged that Sharkey had to relearn how to do everything including eating, swallowing and moving her muscles.

“I don’t remember much of that recovery period,” said Sharkey. “But I do remember knowing that I should be able to do certain activities, and I couldn’t. It was incredibly frustrating knowing that at one point in my life I could easily do a simple task, like pick up a pencil, but then could no longer do it.”

She spent months working with occupational therapists, physical therapists, speech therapists and other professionals, trying to regain control of her body and her life.

“The hardest part was rebuilding relationships,” said Sharkey. “I lost a lot of my social skills at first, and because of this I lost so many friends.”

Doctors told her she shouldn’t go back to school, that it would be too depressing. But she was determined to graduate on time, and went back anyway. Prior to the accident, Sharkey had been an excellent student — as a junior in high school, she was easily passing her senior-level classes. After the accident though, she had to enroll in learning-support classes, which was a huge change for her. She did make it through her classes, and walked with her peers at graduation.

She was accepted to Penn State as a psychology major, and began taking classes — two per semester.

“I really couldn’t take a full workload at first,” said Sharkey. “My body was still recovering from the accident, and I was sleeping half the day.”

She dedicated what little energy she had to her course work. She also had to take many pills as part of her recovery, and at one point was taking 36 pills per day — vitamin supplements, anti-seizure medication, antibiotics and more — and she was on a strict diet to stave off infection in her body.

Sharkey regained some of her social skills as she progressed through stages of her recovery. Although she eventually relearned many social cues and had more success in creating friendships in college, those too were cut short — most of her friends who took a full-time credit load graduated before her.

For as long as she could remember, Sharkey who had wanted to work with children, was determined to bring that dream to fruition. She began volunteering in her church’s nursery and as a Sunday school teacher. After two years of college classes, Sharkey decided to switch majors to human development and family studies, which would bring her closer to working with children. She secured an internship in the HDFS Child Development Lab, working in the infant and toddler class, which was another step closer to the job she’d always wanted.

She also became involved with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, an organization that gives hope, strength and joy to children with life-threatening medical conditions. After her accident, Katie’s condition was so bad that she was eligible to receive a wish through this organization, so she took her family on a cruise. Sharkey wanted to give back to Make-A-Wish, which had been so helpful, and she did so by promoting fundraisers and participating in radio shows for it.

Her unwavering dedication to completing school work and her desire to serve others despite her own struggles left a trail of inspiration in her wake.

“When you see someone who has sustained life-threatening injuries and has fought to live without losing hope, determination, faith and humor, you can’t help but be inspired,” said Pam Evock, Sharkey's adviser. “Katie is a perfect example of the triumph of the human spirit. She’s committed to achieving her goals, and to serving others.”

At the end of March, Sharkey received the Edwin Childs Courage Award, which is a testament to the courage she maintained through her struggle. The award, which is given by Centre LifeLink, honors one person in the Centre County region who has shown a high degree of courage. She was nominated by her doctors.

In May, she will graduate with a degree in Human Development and Family Studies, with a focus in early childhood development. She is engaged and has a job lined up at St. Paul’s Christian Preschool in State College.

“Commencement will mean so much to me," said Sharkey. "It’s an outward expression of how I could overcome everything. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but I did.”

Looking back on her experience, Sharkey explained, “I had no setbacks; only hurdles. People always tell me that not many people can bounce back like I did, and my response is always the same: you never know. I probably thought that way too, before the accident. But I found a way, and I made it happen. I want people to know that they can too.”

Every day she passes the spot where the accident occurred, twice, since it’s on her way to and from her internship.

“I used to cry every time I passed, just thinking about it,” she said. “Now, I look at April 7, not as the day I almost died, but as the day I lived. It has made me understand so much about myself, about what I’m capable of. I realized the determination I have, and I want to spend time helping others see that they’re capable of that same determination. I’m grateful for the accident. It really was a good thing.”

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Last Updated May 15, 2009