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Phyliss proves there's life after coma

Greta Emling (from left), Phyllis Klenk and Mike Klenk. (click for larger version)
December 16, 2009 - Last week, the Leader began a story about Phyllis K. Klenk, a 66-year-old Addison resident who, as a result of a slow brain bleed, spent 1991-94 fighting to get out of a coma, then struggling to communicate with the outside world despite being locked in her own body.

Phyllis and her friend, Greta Emling, a fellow Addison resident, co-authored a book about the experience entitled "Wounded, Trapped and Voiceless . . . All Things are Possible."

The two of them, along with Phyllis' husband of 40 years, Mike Klenk, recently sat down and talked with the Leader.

What follows is Part II of Phyllis' amazing story. Enjoy.


In August 1994, Phyllis left the nursing home in Lake Orion and returned to the home on Indian Lake Road, which she had designed.

"The day I came home was monumental for me," she wrote. "I felt like a captive who was being released . . . Free at last!"

Coming home required some big adjustments for Phyllis, her husband and their three sons.

"Mike was afraid. He was afraid to bring me home. He didn't think he could take care of me. I didn't know at the time, but I know now that he and the boys agreed they would all work together to take care of me," she wrote. "He and the boys didn't think I would live long after I came home, so we took (it) one day at a time, one moment at a time until we all learned how to function together."

Phyllis also had to get reacquainted with her three sons.

"The boys were just boys when I slipped away. Upon my return, they were men. I had a lot of catching up to do," she wrote.

For a long time after she returned home, Phyllis, who was now confined to a wheelchair and completely dependent on others to care for her, went back and forth between reality and her dream world.

"Reality had many problems. It was harder than my dream world. I didn't always like what I saw. Life had been difficult and aimless for Mike and the boys so there were situations to deal with that were completely out of my control," she wrote. "It was obvious to me that I now had no control, so I went back into my dream world. It was familiar and comfortable. I didn't have to deal with anything unpleasant. I was escaping to my dreams."

Going back and forth between reality and dreams was a "confusing existence" that went on for years.

"It was almost like I was two different people," Phyllis wrote. "After I figured out what I was doing, I tried to make myself stay in reality. Now, I never go back, even though sometimes I would like to because it was easier there."

Recovery and hope

Today, Phyllis is still confined to a wheelchair and is only able to move her head and right arm.

"She's not paralyzed," Greta explained. "She can feel everything. She just can't move it. If I tickle her, she knows it."

Phyllis is hopeful that she'll one day regain mobility based on brain scans that indicate she should be able to move her limbs. She can't now due to the extreme weakness of her muscles from years of lying in a bed with no rehabilitation.

"She's thinking there could be hope in stem cell research," Greta noted.

Recently, Phyllis began some testing at the University of Michigan's new Spinal Cord Unit. A doctor there has taken an interest in Phyllis and started tests to determine what the team can do to help with her recovery.

Over the years, her speech has improved a lot, but it's still difficult for people who don't know her to understand Phyllis unless they're patient and listen carefully. Mike and Greta are very good at translating for her.

"When she gets tired, it mushes together, but she does really well when she's awake and alert," Greta said. "She's very patient with us."

"I have to be," said Phyllis, who noted she has no trouble at all understanding what she's saying.

Unfortunately, getting physical and speech therapy is "sporadic" at best because Phyllis' condition is the result of an illness, not an accident. Her insurance provider will only cover six-to-nine weeks of therapy and if there's no progress to document, it's cancelled.

But unlike someone with a broken arm or leg who can make rapid progress with therapy within a short time, Phyllis requires long-term, concentrated therapy. A few weeks isn't enough for any real progress to be made or documented.

"Nine weeks doesn't cut it," Mike said. "They don't get enough bang for their buck."

Her insurance also does not cover the 24-7 home care Phyllis needs. She has an assistant that comes in once a week to help her with some personal hygiene, but the rest of the time she's cared for by her husband and one of her sons who lives with the couple.

Phyllis would love to have a computer with special equipment that would allow her to operate it, but again, that's something insurance just doesn't cover.

"That would mean the whole world to me," she said. "It would change everything."

The book

Phyllis and Greta, who met at Christ the King Church in Oxford, didn't set out to write a book together, it just sort of happened.

"We never thought of it," Phyllis said.

It all started with Greta asking the questions, "What has God kept (Phyllis) alive for? Why is she still living?"

"That's when she said she had experiences walking with Jesus," Greta said. "At that point, I knew there was something God had put in her."

The two started chatting regularly in 2003 and Greta would write down Phyllis' memories, thoughts and feelings.

Before she knew it, Greta had a "whole pile" of papers and a gut feeling that this story should become a book.

"It wasn't actually a decision. It kind of evolved," she said.

The ladies are currently in the process of finding a publisher for their book.

Life lessons

Amazingly, when she looks back at those three years she spent in a coma, then locked-in, Phyllis declares she has no regrets about any of it. "It's all positive," she said.

Phyllis said the whole situation was God's way of teaching her to "slow down" and "enjoy things."

Prior to her health issues, Phyllis said she was "too active" and "never did anything for me."

As Mike put it, she's since learned to "stop and smell the roses."

But her experience hasn't made her selfish or closed off because the desire to help others is still within Phyllis.

She'd like to start going to nursing homes and visiting people who are forgotten.

"I have a lot in me to help other people," Phyllis said.

Knowing Phyllis, listening to her and working on the book has had an effect on Greta as well.

"It made me slow down too," she said. "I was extremely busy with good things, but it was time to slow down and step into the real life of somebody who was on 'stop.'

"It really taught me to look at the needs of disabled people. They're people too. They have brains and feelings just like we do."

CJ Carnacchio is editor for The Oxford Leader. He lives in the Village of Oxford with his wife Connie and daughter Larissa. When he's not busy working on the newspaper, he enjoys cigars/pipes, Martinis/Scotch, hunting and fishing.
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