Posted On: September 24, 2020
As Ann Kiburz emerged from her coma in early 1995, she possessed no recollection of the car accident that had so violently derailed her life three months before.
Simply by waking up at St. Mary’s Hospital, Ann had already defied the odds. Doctors put the likelihood of her survival at something like one in a hundred. But her newly acquired traumatic brain injury meant that an arduous period of adjustment lay ahead.
“I was in complete pain the entire time. The muscles in my fingers and toes were spastized, making my toes constantly point and my fingers jam into my palms 24/7,” Ann recalls. “Plus, I couldn’t walk or talk well. I had to call a nurse for assistance with everything. I couldn’t do anything on my own. This frustrated the heck out of me. I’ve always been very independent, and having to be dependent on someone or something at all times for every gosh-darn little thing was a complete and total nightmare for me.”
Botox injections in Ann’s forearms and legs helped relieve the spasticity in her extremities, easing much of her physical discomfort. The injections combined with regular in and outpatient rehab allowed Ann to progress steadily from wheelchair to walker to leg braces, eventually reaching the point where she could once again walk and drive a vehicle.
Ann now lives virtually pain-free, with the only residual effects from her TBI being occasional loss of balance and permanently slurred speech.
Her determination to regain independence motivated Ann to devote her very best effort to the recovery process.
“The fact that I hated the situation I was in energized me to be so dedicated to therapy and prescribed lifestyle choices at all times,” Ann explains. “Even now, about a quarter-century later, I still see a therapist when need be, and regularly practice all my therapeutic exercises and protocols.”
Unfortunately, Ann’s doctors couldn’t prescribe a plan for seamless re-entry to the workplace. Prior to her accident, Ann enjoyed a challenging and rewarding tenure at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, an appealing destination for a writing and editing enthusiast fresh out of college.
“When I got home from college, I had my eye on the WANT ads,” Ann remembers. “One day I saw an ad for an assistant in the Management Training department at the Post-Dispatch. That department didn’t greatly interest me, but working at the Post did. As my dad always said, ‘Just get your foot in the door.’ So I applied for the job and ended up getting it.”
Ann made the most of her opportunities at the Post-Dispatch. When the Management Training department was ultimately disbanded, she took a job in Personnel. After about a year of that, Ann applied for and landed an assistant position in Public Relations at the newspaper.
When the Promotions Copywriter from the Marketing Department went out on maternity leave, Ann stepped confidently into the role, writing promotional ads for the Post-Dispatch from 1992-1994, up until the point of her accident.
Working in various roles at a daily newspaper taught Ann a lot about the importance of strict adherence to deadlines and constant attention to detail.
“Since the paper’s copy and layout are due to production at a hard-and-fast time every day, I learned to work quickly and completely. Mental and physical checklists become daily to-do’s,” Ann recounts. “And you get that awesome sense of achievement and pride when you see your printed piece in the paper the next day, every day. Job well done.”
But Ann wasn’t greeted with the same familiar Post-Dispatch when she returned to work in 1996. Management had changed and her department was now located in a different part of the building. She didn’t see many of her old coworkers, either. In her physical and mental state, Ann found it difficult to deal with the new company landscape. After sticking it out for two more years, Ann left the Post-Dispatch in 1998.
Ann’s new reality as a disabled job seeker took an overwhelming toll at first, seriously challenging her spiritual fortitude.
“My TBI greatly affected every aspect of my career plans,” Ann laments. “I just couldn’t physically perform as I used to, and this frustration brought out non-job-like behavior.”
But Ann started to find career redemption by putting her professional skills to use in a volunteer setting. From 1998 to 2001, Ann volunteered at the St. Louis University (SLU) Center of Communications and Culture, where she served as a proofreader and book reviewer while helping produce their Communication Research Trends newsletter.
The department eventually closed, but Ann parlayed that experience into a similar role at the Washington University School of Medicine’s Spinal Cord Injury Restorative Treatment and Research Program, this time earning a paycheck for her services. But when the head doctor was hired by Johns Hopkins University, the entire program went with him, landing Ann firmly back on the job-search trail in 2004.
She again turned to volunteering as a means of jump-starting her career, this time as a proofreader at St. Louis Magazine. Her talent for identifying misplaced commas and dangling modifiers quickly won her a paid, work-from-home job as a Copy Editor at SLM’s At Home. In 2008, the publication began requiring all employees to work from their physical office, a move that didn’t appeal to Ann, so she left in search of another gig.
From 2008 to 2012, Ann logged more time as a volunteer writer and editor, first at Barnes-Jewish Extended Care’s Aphasia Conversation Connection and later with Peter and Paul Community Services. For Ann, these roles meant much more than simply keeping her skills sharp.
“It was important for me to continually work because I like the feeling of achievement you get when working, seeing what you can do. I just like working. Always have,” Ann declares. “And after my TBI, I continually questioned my abilities. I wanted to get out there and exercise my brain, benefitting both myself and the community.”
Ann’s journey demonstrates how career-defining connections can materialize when you remain focused and willing to embrace opportunities. It happened again in 2012 when she discovered the Starkloff Disability Institute and the Next Big Step, the program we now know as the Starkloff Career Academy Capstone Course.
“Susan Menhard was running it and I think she’s awesome. We completely connected,” Ann recalls. “I got so much out of the course. I loved and thoroughly benefitted from all of the dialogue and the presentations from Starkloff’s partner companies.”
After completing the course and volunteering for us as an editor for four years, SDI hired Ann in 2016 as Copy Editor of Starkloff’s Connections, our organization’s monthly newsletter.
As it does for so many disabled job seekers, the Career Academy’s message of empowerment resonates with Ann.
“Being struck with a disability is a complete bummer, a shockingly difficult change in lifestyle and mentality,” Ann admits. “But I try to consistently remind myself how amazing my recovery’s been – how I’m such a miracle, how it could have been so much worse.
“Here I am, living in a cool apartment on my own, driving, working at the perfect job for me, enjoying life … opposite of what was prognosticated. Very cool.”