Tech student survives brain aneurysm to pursue dream career

May 18, 2023 | Applied and Natural Sciences, General News, Students, Tech Family

Kristyn Smith, an upcoming Spring 2023 graduate of Louisiana Tech University, has defied the odds by recovering from a sudden ruptured brain aneurysm and pursuing her passions in the field of veterinary medicine.

Smith began her Tech journey in 2014, initially pursuing a degree in Kinesiology with plans to become a physical therapist. After speaking with Dr. William Green, the director of Tech’s School of Agricultural Sciences and Forestry at the time, Smith decided to chase her childhood dreams of becoming a veterinarian. She excelled in her pre-vet classes and began volunteering at 4Paws Rescue Inc. in Ruston. She shadowed multiple veterinarians at 4Paws and was offered a Shelter Manager position after some time there.

Kristyn Smith at 4Paws

Kristyn at 4Paws

In 2017, after making a house call in Ruston to administer an insulin shot to a dog, she returned to 4Paws and began complaining of an intense headache. She was rushed to a local hospital and intubated. Medical personnel discovered she had “blood on her brain” after suffering a ruptured brain aneurysm. The hospital transferred her to a trauma center in Shreveport, where she underwent lifesaving surgery to repair the aneurysm and stop the bleeding. The prognosis was grim, as doctors predicted she would be paralyzed on her left side and bedridden for life if she survived.

Smith had to undergo another surgery the following day to remove part of her skull to prevent a stroke. After spending 10 days in a coma, she finally regained consciousness but could communicate using hand signals only. Her situation was so dire that the social worker asked her family which nursing home they wanted to send her to.

After consultation with the medical staff, the family agreed to have Smith transferred to TIRR Memorial Hermann in Houston for rehabilitation. There, she began intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy. At the time, she could not hold her head up on her own and could not talk, eat, or move her left-side limbs.

As therapy continued, Smith showed some progress, and it surprised her family when she finally began to communicate that she had school on her mind.

“I will never forget the day when she woke up one morning doing a handwriting motion,” said Karyn Smith, Kristyn’s mother. “She wanted to write. We got her a dry-erase board so she could communicate more with us. She started asking, ‘When can I go back to Tech?’”

What followed were months of hospital transfers and surgeries as Smith moved from Shreveport to Houston and eventually to Pate Rehabilitation in Anna, Texas. Smith’s mother lived with her at an inpatient building at Pate, and they spent Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day together there as she rehabbed. Eventually, she transitioned from a wheelchair to a walking cane and was equipped with hearing aids.

Throughout 2018, despite more surgeries and continued rehabilitation, Smith never stopped setting her sights on a return to Ruston and to Tech.

“I was told that I needed to ‘accept the new normal’ and that she would never be able to return to college,” Karyn said. “We then had her evaluated and tested, and she was told she could try to start back to college by taking one class at a time. We offered her to attend college in Dallas or Houston around family.  She refused. She wanted to be back at Louisiana Tech and in Ruston to complete what she started. She would not settle for anything else.”

Smith would move back home to Monroe in the summer of 2020, and she managed to begin taking online classes during the COVID-19 pandemic while still attending therapy full-time. Her resolve led her to a full return to Louisiana Tech in the fall of 2021.

Kristyn Smith - Phi Kappa Phi

Kristyn is inducted into the Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society

Her return to Tech was full of challenges — she was unable to drive, having lost her peripheral vision due to brain bleed. She had regained the ability to walk on her own, but her mobility was limited, especially on her left side. Smith’s mother moved into her apartment with her to help her get to classes and arrange tutoring sessions. Her short-term memory had been adversely affected by her trauma, and she had to adapt to new learning and memorization methods while she studied and attended class.

As she took on her remaining curriculum — she even took sign language as an elective so she could communicate with others who had suffered similar injuries and were unable to talk — Smith was grateful for the help and encouragement of Dr. Mark Murphey, Program Chair of Agricultural Sciences at Louisiana Tech.

“I just treated Kristyn like any other student,” Murphey said. “I guided her along where I could, but it was all her. I’m proud of how she’s persevered, and her determination and dedication are what’s gotten her to this point.”

Smith has gone from a dire prognosis to the final days of her final class before graduating from Louisiana Tech, a journey that began in 2014 and resumed thanks to her desire to continue her education and pursue her passion at the University. Today, her vision has improved and allowed her driver’s license to be reinstated. She has her hearing back. And when she walks — something she was told she’d never do again — across the stage on May 20, it will be a moment of hard-earned triumph.

“I do believe with all my heart that her wanting to be back at Louisiana Tech pushed her through the darkest days,” Karyn Smith said. “She is a true miracle. This is why we call her Kristyn Strong.”