“When I woke up after my stroke, all I wanted was to be normal again,” recalls Kelsey Tainsh. Normal — as in a healthy teen athlete who could brush her teeth and shower on her own, who wasn’t wheelchair-bound, who wasn’t compelled to hide her paralyzed right hand in her pocket everywhere she went, one who hadn’t lost all of her high school friends except for her two triplet sisters.
Now, this world-champion athlete not only learned to walk and talk again but also to embrace her differences. “Our hardest obstacles can be our biggest opportunities,” she says.
Kelsey’s first taste of being different came at age 5. She was diagnosed with a brain tumor — an optic pathway pilocytic astrocytoma. Her parents brought her from their home in Winter Park, Florida, to Boston Children’s Hospital for treatment — surgery and radiation.
“It wasn’t a big deal. I wore a baseball cap to cover my scar and got back on with my life pretty quickly,” she says.
Kelsey sailed through elementary school, even nabbing a speaking gig at age 11, when she helped the Make-A-Wish Foundation raise more than $250,000. She also dug into her passion for sports, earning a spot on the high school varsity volleyball team in seventh grade, becoming a world-champion wakeboarder at 13 and rowing crew with her state-champion school team.
She had found her niche. Or so she thought.
Kelsey’s world changed at age 15. Her brain tumor returned. She was back at Boston Children’s for a second surgery on June 12, 2006 — 10 years to the day after the first one with the same doctors who performed her first operation: anesthesiologist Dr. Mark Rockoff and neurosurgeon Dr. R. Michael Scott.
Kelsey’s next obstacle: Pediatric stroke
Scott successfully removed Kelsey’s tumor, but she had a stroke in association with her surgery, paralyzing the right side of her body. She went from a healthy, active athlete to a bed-bound patient.
“I had a choice. I could sit in my hospital bed and wheelchair, or I could get better,” she says.
Kelsey chose to get better.
I had a choice. I could sit in my hospital bed and wheelchair, or I could get better.
During her hospital stay, Kelsey drew strength from her support system. “I needed help with everything.”
Physical therapy started one week after surgery. Her nurses showered her and dressed her as she slowly re-learned how to take care of herself. “I know they were doing their job, but they acted like it wasn’t work. It was clear how much they cared,” she says. And there were moments of magic as well: visits from the hospital’s clowns, dining on chocolate chip pancakes with her father and the first time she moved her leg.
After four weeks at Boston Children’s, Kelsey went to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta for the remainder of the summer for physical, occupational and speech therapy. She returned home wheelchair-bound but ready to get back to her life. Little did she realize how much her life would change.
Friends ignored her and drifted away as they did not want to be “different” like she was. “In high school, if you don’t fit in you stand out, and boy did I stand out,” Kelsey says. She powered through high school and college, despite her differences and the constant stares she got from others. Slowly she started to embrace her differences. Her outlook changed and so did her life.
“It took me about six years to take my hand out of my pocket and realize that we are all different. There’s no such thing as normal,” she says. Kelsey changed her outlook and discovered her passion for helping others from the platform.
In 2013, she received a standing ovation when she delivered a keynote speech for the National Speaker’s Association (NSA) Youth Program.
Her career took off. Clients from The Coca-Cola Company to Children’s Miracle Network and Harvard Medical School started asking Kelsey to speak about leadership, inclusion and the power of embracing our differences and the differences of others.
“Each speech and every client is meaningful,” she says. But when Rockoff, her favorite anesthesiologist, asked her if she would speak at a national meeting of the Society for Pediatric Anesthesia in 2014, she knew she had made it as a professional motivational speaker. Today, she travels all over the U.S. speaking to college students, youth groups, corporations and physicians. In September 2015, she gave a Bold Talk at INBOUND in Boston where there were more than 14,000 attendees.
Kelsey’s professional credentials were cemented in December 2015, when she was featured on the cover of the NSA Speaker magazine. “It wouldn’t have happened without my brain tumor or stroke. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”
Learn more about the Boston Children’s Cerebrovascular Disorders and Stroke Program.
About the blogger: Kelsey Tainsh is a professional public speaker who has succeeded in spite of life-changing, medical obstacles. She brings a unique perspective on life and the ability to succeed. In May, she will be a keynote speaker at the Boston Children’s Hospital/Harvard Medical School’s postgraduate course, “Principles of Pediatric Anesthesia and Critical Care.”