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Graduate defies odds<br> After suffering brain injuries from a car accident at age 5, Lindsey Burkhard overcame immense adversity to succeed

Like clockwork, thousands of students graduate from high school each June, and for most it is considered simply a rite of passage.

But for Lindsey Burkard, graduating once seemed a distant feat after brain injuries endured from a car accident at age 5 left her without the ability to walk, talk, swallow or fully blink.

The 19-year-old graduated from Williamsville East High School Sunday, and for her and family members, the experience was bittersweet, given everything she has ever overcome.

"To me, I never thought I would be graduating because when we had the accident and my sister passed away, they weren't sure they were going to have the funeral because they weren't sure I was going make it either," Lindsey said at her family's East Amherst home before her commencement.

These days, most would never guess what Lindsey has gone through. She speaks well, and the scars from the accident on her face are difficult to see.

She plans to attend Hilbert College in Hamburg this fall and to do so with the sort of excitement that would seem to leave the hurdles she has jumped in the dust.

The accident struck when the Burkards lived in Clarks Summit, Pa., leaving Lindsey in a coma for several days and her then-3-year-old sister, Paige, injured. It also cost the life of her 4-year-old sister, Kristin, whose photo hung just feet away from Lindsey on Sunday.

After two months in the hospital, she was just able to leave walking.

The first word Lindsey could say, her mother Maggie Burkard said, was "no." After six months, she began to talk and continued to undergo speech therapy until the seventh grade.

"When it comes to brain injuries, they told us it was like Swiss cheese," Maggie said. "There's times you've got it all going, then you hit a hole."

Lindsey repeated kindergarten at age 7 with a full-time aide in tow. Various exercises, which at times she said were "like being controlled by other people," helped her regain most of her regular capabilities. Riding horses was among the most frequent occupational therapy activities.

When she was older, Lindsey took dance lessons, eventually stopping because of coordination issues. But her parents said she took up acting with the Academy of Theatre Arts in Williamsville and stayed busy with programs through their church -- things that helped "rewire the gaps" in her recovery.

Some things, she said, she will never be able to do because of the accident. Tasks that require speedy reactions and multiple maneuvers simultaneously, such as driving, are unapproachable.

"I still have learning disabilities. People have to tell me things more than once and I don't comprehend things as quickly," Lindsey said.

She intends to study human services at Hilbert and, because she "fell in love" with children, she said she might work to help others like her who grow up with disabilities. She also is taking a $5,000 scholarship awarded to her from the New York Schools Insurance Reciprocal, which has awarded a scholarship to college-bound special-education students for the last few years.

Joseph Goncalves, NYSIR executive director, said Lindsey was selected as a statewide winner out of 127 applications. Bob Bambino, whose late daughter, Cristin Ann, for whom the scholarship is named, said Lindsey stood out because of her "well-written" essay illustrating her challenges and how she worked through them.

"I never let the challenges I faced get me down," Bambino said, reading from her essay one day last week. "I used the strengths that I had and applied them to create an experience that was fulfilling."

"Strengths" has been a key word for the Burkards, as they have concentrated on Lindsey's positive attributes, like her good recall memory. To her father, Ron Burkard, something else stands out as well.

"You always want your children to achieve and be successful. But it's a little extra sweeter when she is successful, knowing she has to put a little more effort into it," he said. "At times, I appreciate Lindsey's attitude because she has an attitude that 'I will do it.' "

Lindsey added, "And I never give up, either."

e-mail: jsmith@buffnews.com

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