While everyone else is busy planning a cookout for Memorial Day, Kim Kostak has a much larger plan.

The 53-year-old Tamaqua woman is learning how to walk again.

Kostak's plight hit suddenly one cold January night when she jumped into her Jeep after a putting in a 16-hour shift on the job at the Carbon County Correctional Facility. Something was wrong.

"I couldn't put my right foot on the pedal," she recalls, "and my hand just fell off the steering wheel."

Kostak couldn't even slide across the seat.

A healthy non-smoker and non-drinker, Kostak figured she had pinched a nerve, especially since she's dealt with sciatica on occasion.

"I never thought it was a stroke because I didn't have any classic signs," she says.

Kostak phoned her son for help. He rushed her to St. Luke's Hospital – Miners Campus, where it was determined a ruptured vessel in her brain had caused a stroke.

Within four hours, Kostak was admitted to the intensive care unit at Lehigh Valley Health Network as her symptoms were getting worse. Her right side was immobile, although her speech and cognitive abilities were unaffected.

"I had no muscle control. I felt like 200 pounds was lying on that side of my body," she says. "I couldn't sit up. I couldn't move my arm or hand. I was panicked and overwhelmed. I'd never experienced anything like that."

Road to recovery

Kostak says she was put on Coumadin, a popular blood thinner, and antiseizure medication.

After three days in ICU, she had stabilized. But things were far from good, she says.

"I couldn't dress myself. I couldn't go to the bathroom by myself. I couldn't even sit up in bed without being propped up by pillows."

She remembers the feeling of despair and wondering "Will I be in this wheelchair for the rest of my life?"

On Feb. 1, four days after the stroke, Kostak moved on to Good Shepherd Rehabilitation Hospital and began physical and occupational therapy the next day. Within a week, she was able to sit up on her own, thanks to a team of experts and a program of advanced rehabilitation technology. For hand movements, she worked with a device called the Motorika, or a Reo Go robot, used for retraining motor skills. She basically started from scratch.

"It took five days before I was able to touch my nose and brush my teeth," she says.

Kostak, the former Kim Vignone of Nesquehoning, says a device called the Tibion Bionic Leg is now playing a big role in getting her up on her feet.

The Tibion is a computerized device strapped onto the leg. It provides assistance to a patient's impaired leg by assisting in relearning motion. It improves the ability to place weight on the leg, says Susan Lawfer of Good Shepherd Physical Therapy, where Kostak is undergoing treatment. Lawfer has seen many patients benefit by it.

"The robotics in the motor help the patient stand up," explains Lawfer, a Barnesville resident. "When the motor works hard, it changes sounds. It's simple to use and gives them more support."

The Bionic Leg also is useful for orthopedic conditions, multiple sclerosis and arthritis. In fact, research has shown that stroke survivors, even 10 years past stroke, can benefit from its use.

Jen Riedy, Good Shepherd's marketing manager, said the Tibion Bionic Leg technology is new to the Good Shepherd's Palmerton outpatient site and has proved to be a valuable tool for recovery. Kostak is a prime example, she says.

The big step

"I can feel my leg again. I actually can balance," says Kostak. She learned to walk a few steps using a walker, and is now using only a cane.

Those in rehab say Kostak's improvement is remarkable, due in large part to her attitude.

"She has such determination," says Josh Weidner, a physical therapist assistant.

Kostak no longer takes medication except for her choice of a daily vitamin and mineral supplement.

She told the folks at Good Shepherd that the past year has been the biggest challenge of her life.

"I've cried more tears in the past few weeks than I've cried in my entire life. I've gotten past the hurdle of being angry with God. I want to go back to the life I had. I have grandchildren. I love the outdoors. I want to be riding trails again. I want to walk on the beach with my grandchildren. I want to plant my garden," she says.

Through it all, Kostak has maintained her sense of humor.

"I can talk with my hands now. I'm Italian. I need to speak with my hands."

Kostak left Good Shepherd Rehabilitation one month after being admitted and is continuing outpatient therapy at Good Shepherd Physical Therapy, 3295 Forest Inn Road, Palmerton.