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New London — On one of her worst days, Kelsey Hickle didn't recognize her father, Bill, when he flew from Texas to see her at Yale-New Haven Hospital.
She couldn't speak, couldn't feed herself, couldn't shower, couldn't write.
Hickle, who wore a blue star on her uniform at the Coast Guard Academy for the highest achievement in physical fitness and who at the time was a sophomore member of the volleyball team, had been stricken by a rare disease, Anti-NMDA receptor encephalitis.
The symptoms started slowly. She was tired no matter how much sleep she got. She couldn't concentrate. Her emotions were a roller coaster. Bible verses which she long ago memorized didn't make sense to her. Nothing made sense. Eventually, she was rendered catatonic.
“I do think about it a lot," Hickle said this week, healthy and serving as a student assistant coach for the volleyball team. "I was meant to go through it; it's a story to share. It was hard. It was an emotional experience. But I like to tell people now that there's nothing you can't put your mind to and not succeed."
Hickle's return isn't complete yet in her mind. After returning to the Coast Guard Academy, repeating her sophomore (or third class) year as a cadet due to her illness, Hickle suffered a season-ending knee injury last October during volleyball season and underwent surgery in January. It was her second ACL tear.
An outside hitter originally from Plano, Texas, Hickle is assisting second-year head coach Aylene Ilkson this season in hopes of making a full return to playing volleyball next year as a senior.
But considering what she's gone through already, a debilitating health crisis and a return to the Coast Guard for which she had to prove her physical and mental readiness, Hickle's comeback is already a resounding success, according to Ilkson.
"I think it's a real sign of character, what kind of strength she has. She persevered time after time after time," Ilkson said. "It's tremendously hard to make it through the academy, period."
Ilkson first met Hickle when she returned from her illness last fall, wanting to come out "guns blazing," according to the coach, but still unsure of herself in some ways.
This season Hickle, in coaching, is providing a sense of maturity for a Coast Guard team which features no seniors. The Bears were 22-9 last season and reached the semifinals of the New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference tournament.
"I think she brings a lot to the table, a lot of life experience that puts life in perspective, that volleyball is just a small fraction of life," Ilkson said of Hickle. "She's a calming presence and a moral conscience, so on point to the struggles that are at Coast Guard and how to combat them. She takes things in such stride."
Hickle spent three weeks undergoing treatment at Yale-New Haven Hospital, enduring a procedure known as plasmapheresis, by which the blood was filtered out of her body little by little so that the plasma might be treated, then returned.
Hickle repeated the process several times, first in New Haven, then at Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas, where she was flown to be closer to home.
"I remember flying back to Texas, being strapped to a medical bed in the jet," said Hickle, whose mother Diane remained with her throughout the trip. "I thought I was in a video game. The whole time I felt like I was playing a video game. My dad was there to meet us at the airport."
Hickle remembers the first time she brushed her teeth by herself. She had to relearn how to walk. She had to attend brain rehabilitation, another emotional experience she called "humbling."
"My mom, at Yale and at Texas, read me the Bible," Hickle said. "She had 40 healing bible verses and she read them to me over and over. I know for a fact that boosted my healing. Most people who have this condition are in the hospital for five months. I got out in five weeks."
It is unknown what caused Hickle's illness, perhaps something dormant which was triggered by her first knee surgery, a small pox shot she received or any number of things.
Now, though, Ilkson calls Hickle an inspiration. Hickle was engaged this summer to Zach Wells of Westerly, a fellow Coast Guard cadet. She will turn 21 years old on Sunday. She was forced to switch graduating classes at the academy, to the Class of 2016, but otherwise would have missed the summer she just spent training incoming swabs, an experience she enjoyed. She's majoring in operations research and computer analysis. Older brothers Tim and Matt have their little sister back.
"She was a player that wanted to have everyone come into the center and look at each other and pick each other up," Ilkson said of Hickle. "We're happy that she's staying around the team as a student assistant. She can rehab and come back stronger and faster and better than ever next year.
"She's been (at Coast Guard) longer than I have. And she stuck with it."