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Kallie Zitek

Kallie Zitek, 9, was 2 when she suffered a traumatic brain injury in a car accident. She has made huge strides after undergoing treatment at Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital as a toddler and is now receiving Madonna's 2016 GOAL Award.

The little girl doctors feared would never talk, walk or perhaps come out of a vegetative state twirls across the family room of her Seward home.

She loves to dance.

And play volleyball, basketball and baseball. And don’t forget skiing.

She’s eager to try gymnastics.

“When I grow up, I’m going to be a dolphin trainer,” announced 9-year-old Kallie Zitek.

Though she lives thousands of miles away from the nearest ocean, the Seward Elementary School fourth-grader is not one to be deterred.

She never has been.

Which is why Kallie was selected as one of the 2016 Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital’s GOAL Award recipients. She will be honored at a special luncheon on Tuesday.

Kallie was just on the tail end of age 2 when her family, returning home from western Nebraska on a snowy Dec. 6, 2009, collided head-on with a truck.

Kallie’s father, Jim Zitek, died upon impact.

Kallie, who was strapped into a car seat in the middle of the back seat, suffered a traumatic brain injury. Her mother Niki Zitek (now Svoboda), who was seven months pregnant with son Lucas, was sleeping in the reclined front passenger seat, and escaped with minor injuries.

Svoboda remembers waking to the sounds of Kallie’s cries. Turning to look at the toddler, she recalls seeing just a small amount of blood on the side of her daughter’s face.

She later learned that her little girl’s cries were not of fear, but the distinct sound of someone with a traumatic brain injury.

The family went first to the hospital in Holdrege. Once stabilized they were transferred to CHI Health Good Samaritan Hospital in Kearney.

Svoboda’s unborn baby also escaped injury, but Svoboda was admitted overnight for observation just to be safe.

Kallie sustained a “global” head injury -- meaning the injuries were throughout her brain, caused by the violent force of the crash. Kearney sent her to Children’s Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, where she was placed in a drug-induced coma.

Tests revealed no spinal cord or brain stem injuries. That was the good news, Svoboda said.

But doctors told her that Kallie’s outlook was “very grim.”

Brain swelling was the biggest threat.

Four days after the accident, they realized their fears. The “intracranial pressure” reading was so high that hospital staff thought the machine was malfunctioning, Svoboda said. They double-checked with a second machine and called the doctor.

Svoboda remembers a nurse handing her the telephone. The doctor wants to talk to you.

He recommended emergency surgery to remove pieces of Kallie's skull cap to give the brain room to swell. Or, they could do nothing.

"If I don’t do the surgery, she won’t make it through the night,” the doctor told Svoboda.

Surgery was also risky, and there was no predicting how much of the brain already was damaged by the swelling.

“He didn’t know if she would be able to come out of the coma," Svoboda said. "Even with surgery, she could be in a vegetative state for the rest of her life."

She agonized over the decision. She wanted to talk to her husband.

Finally someone asked her: What would Jim do?

“He would give her a chance,” she said. “He would want her to live.

“I couldn’t bear losing Kallie at the same time I had lost my husband.”

She told the doctor: Do the surgery. Do the best you can. And please bring her back to me.

She remembers the doctor practically running toward her after the surgery. He was ecstatic. Kallie’s brain was pink and looked healthy.

“For the first time since that accident there was a glimmer of hope,” Svoboda said.

“After that it was day by day.”

Still deep in a coma, Kallie lay motionless and unresponsive.

Then one day her eye-twitched.

Another day her toe twitched.

Christmas Eve 2009, Svoboda walked into Kallie’s room to see her in a nurse’s lap crying -- Kallie was waking up.

And Svoboda, who had not been able to hold her daughter for three weeks, cradled the little girl in her arms.

Cushioning Kallie in blankets, Svoboda placed her in a red wagon and walked her through the hospital hallways.

“It was bittersweet," Svoboda said. "She was still so lifeless."

The brain injury mostly affected the left side of Kallie's body.

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On Jan. 8., 2010, Kallie was transferred to Madonna Rehabilitation Hospital. She couldn’t talk, walk or sit up her own.

The biggest issue was her left side -- she didn’t know she had one.

“We had to show Kallie her left arm, so she knew she had one,” Svoboda said.

Therapists introduced E-stim, electrical stimulation, to “wake up” Kallie’s muscles. Following weeks of repetitive therapies, she gradually moved  -- from lifting herself to a sitting position to standing independently.

“Go, Kallie! Go,” became the rallying cry.

But as Kallie made progress in some areas, she suffered setbacks in others. The biggest was when she stopped eating.

Kallie’s sense of taste had changed -- a common aftereffect of a brain injury, said Jody Macke, a nurse at Madonna’s Alexis Verzal Children's Rehabilitation Hospital.

“We used different methods of encouragement to help Kallie regain her eating habits, such as tea parties and picnics with other children,” Macke said.

But Kallie was stubborn, and Svoboda became frustrated and depressed.

“Nobody could make her eat,” she said. “Eating was the only thing Kallie could control.”

Eventually, Madonna placed Kallie on a feeding tube.

“She didn’t like it,” Svoboda said.

Worse, she didn’t like that the feeding tube prevented her from her favorite activity -- pool time. Staff told her she could swim again, once she started eating on her own.

“They thought she would be on the tube for maybe one week,” Svoboda said. “ She had it for four weeks.”

Brother Lucas Zitek was born Feb. 18, 2010.

Four days later Kallie turned 3. Madonna hosted a princess party in her honor. Kallie wore a tiara. And ate a piece of birthday cake.

Family helped Svoboda balance her time between being at Madonna and caring for her newborn.

She remembers arriving at Madonna to hear “Kallie’s walking.”

She assumed it meant she was walking with assistance -- something she had been doing.

But when her little girl walked through the hospital cafeteria and threw her arms around her mother it was more than Svoboda had ever expected.

“It was so surreal," Svoboda said. "I had it in my head that she would never do it. … It was awesome!

“Two weeks later we went home.”

Kallie spent the rest of 2010 in the Madonna Day Rehabilitation Program.

She progressed but the “tone” in her legs was so bad she had difficulty walking steadily. Tone means the nerves have told the muscles to contract in unnatural and unyielding positions. Kallie received repeated Botox injections followed by leg casts to gradually stretch the muscles to the correct position. Every four to six months for three years Kallie repeated the process. But it wasn’t working.

Then in 2013 Madonna staff told Svoboda of a new procedure being done by a St. Louis doctor. The surgery -- called selective dorsal rhizotomy -- involves going into the spinal cord and cutting the nerves that are causing the muscle spasticity. It’s performed most often on people with cerebral palsy.

The doctor said Kallie was a prime candidate.

There was only one drawback -- Kallie would again have to completely relearn to walk.

Svoboda and her soon-to-be husband, Trevor Svoboda, left the decision up to Kallie. The 6-year-old didn’t hesitate: No more Botox shots. No more casts. Let’s do the surgery.

The Svobodas married on April 20, 2013. They took a “family-moon” to Florida.

One month later, Kallie had the surgery. She spent one week in the St. Louis hospital, before coming back to Nebraska and returning to Madonna’s outpatient therapy program.

She arrived at Madonna in a wheelchair.

The next day she was using a walker.

Two days later she was using a cane.

One week later, Kallie attended her T-ball team’s final game. Kallie joined her teammates on the bench and watched.

But then Kallie said she wanted to bat. The coach let her. She took a swing. Hit the ball. And ran the bases.

“All in just 1½ weeks after coming home from St. Louis,”  Svoboda said.

One Dec. 6, 2013 -- exactly four years to the day of the accident that left her with a traumatic brain injury -- Kallie officially graduated out of rehabilitation therapy.

On Aug. 12, 2014, baby sister, Kinley Svoboda was born.

Tuesday, when Kallie walks across the Cornhusker Ballroom stage to receive her GOAL Award, her entire extended and blended family will be in the audience -- no doubt chanting: Go, Kallie! Go!

“Children’s Hospital saved Kallie’s life,” Svoboda said. “Madonna gave Kallie her independence back.”

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Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or eandersen@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.

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