Life-changing accident didn't stop alumna from obtaining successful careers

Life-changing accident didn't stop alumna from obtaining successful careers

I t’s been three years since the accident that would test Kimiko Cheeley,’s, ’14, resolve to get through life. Her will to live and sheer determination brought her out of a coma and, later, led her to mastering and managing three successful careers. 

Kimiko Cheeley
Kimiko Cheeley

She doesn’t have any recollection of her injury or the day it took place. From what she was told by her husband, the date was Dec. 26, 2017. Cheeley and her husband were asked to move a massive tractor tire at her mother’s house.

“My mother also asked my little brothers who were seven and eight years old to help,” she said. “But we didn’t want anything to happen to them, so we proceeded without them. I lost my footing and the tire enveloped my entire body.”

The 500-plus-pound tire also fell on her husband’s leg, but he was able to wiggle from under it. He said the last thing she told him before she lost consciousness was, “I love you.”

“I assume I was thinking, ‘I’m not going to make it,’” Cheeley said. “All of the weight of the tire was on me, and I couldn’t breathe, so my heart stopped.”

She was rushed to The Medical Center, Navicent Health Level 1 Trauma Hospital in Macon. A medical director suggested they do target temperature management, known as hypothermia protocol to cool her body temperature to preserve her organs to give them time to heal. Then, they would rewarm her body back up—"a jump-start to my body essentially,” she said.

Cheeley was in a coma over a week. When she was stable enough to leave The Medical Center, Navicent Health, she was transported to the Shepherd Center. For three weeks, she endured intensive physical rehabilitation.

“I essentially had to learn how to do everything all over again,” she said. “My memory was horrible. I couldn’t recall the entire month. I also couldn’t walk and had to learn how to write and hold a spoon—little things you don’t think about.”

Her therapy sessions triggered memories of her time at Georgia College. 

“I thought I could provide care to a patient from a caregiver’s and survivor’s perspective. Plus, I got through my TBI, so I could help support patients and their families. They thought it would be the perfect position for me. And then with my background in psychology at Georgia College coupled with my experience as a marriage and family therapist, it was just a 360-degree experience altogether.”
– Kimiko Cheeley

“Mostly, cognitive psychology was applied to my recovery, because it’s all about cognition and perception, attention, problem solving, creativity and thinking,” she said. “My short-term memory was horrible. They gave me a list of words to try and help remember, and I could only remember the first and last words, which, in psychology terms, are primacy and recency affects.”

She would try to remember numbers, as well. Cheeley had to chunk the numbers together to retain them and increase her digit span. 

Kimiko Cheeley shares a laugh with others at the Georgia Trauma Foundation's 2020 Trauma Awareness Day at the state capital.
Kimiko Cheeley shares a laugh with others at the Georgia Trauma Foundation's 2020 Trauma Awareness Day at the state capital.

Unfortunately, the huge gap from Cheeley’s traumatic brain injury (TBI) made her unable to remember all her Georgia College professors. However, she recalls two of them. Her psychology professor taught her how the mind works, and Cheeley applied these skills to her recovery. Her English 1101 professor encouraged her to continue writing, because she thought Cheeley was good at it.

“She told me how great my writing was,” said Cheeley. “Being a writer never crossed my mind. And who would’ve thought early last year, I would publish an article in our Family Therapy magazine, where I wrote about the trauma I endured, my recovery and the approach a therapist should take with their patients who have experienced trauma.”

Prior to her injury, Cheeley was a palliative care coordinator at The Medical Center, Navicent Health. While she was recovering from TBI, Cheeley surprised her friends and family by going back to work early. However, she experienced palliative care from the family’s perspective before Cheeley was on the Health Care team. Her mother-in-law, who passed away from ovarian cancer was under its services prior to her death.

The Medical Center, Navicent Health wanted Cheeley to be the Trauma Survivors Network coordinator, because of her first-hand experience in dealing with trauma. 

“I thought I could provide care to a patient from a caregiver’s and survivor’s perspective. Plus, I got through my TBI, so I could help support patients and their families,” she said. “They thought it would be the perfect position for me. And then with my background in psychology at Georgia College coupled with my experience as a marriage and family therapist, it was just a 360-degree experience altogether.”

Cheeley found solace in her position as care coordinator at The Medical Center, Navicent Health. 

Kimiko Cheeley speaks at the Georgia Trauma Foundation's 2020 Trauma Awareness Day at the state capital.
Kimiko Cheeley speaks at the Georgia Trauma Foundation's 2020 Trauma Awareness Day at the state capital.

“Just being there to provide my perspective, experience and helping others and letting them know what to expect is rewarding to me. Because a lot of times, families are getting so much thrown at them, and no one is taking the time to go through the process step by step. This is where we’re going to go from here, this is what to expect, this is what you could do, or this would be better—I just enjoy giving back to patients and their families.”

In times of trauma, Cheeley hopes patients and their families will find peace, understanding and acceptance in what they’re going through.

“As a volunteer, I enjoy seeing that glimpse of hope come from patients,” she said. “They can see well if she can do it, then it motivates them to recover, as well.”

Although much of Cheeley’s memory is gone, she recalls some lessons from her psychology classes at Georgia College.

“Psychology is the study of humans—their mind and behavior,” she said. “It especially teaches about relationships. As I’m helping others, I draw from my classes and consider how each person’s possibly thinking, and I question, ‘How do I act in response?’

Today, she works in the virtual care outpatient clinic at The Medical Center, Navicent Health. She also teaches psychology at Middle Georgia State University and is a licensed marriage and family therapist.

“My biggest thing as a mom of a 12-year-old is that I cannot give up,” she said. “I have to show my son that life can be tough. It throws things at you that you’re not prepared for. But you can still make it if you have the right support. If you continue to think positive and don’t dwell on the negative, then you can conquer those obstacles.”