Two decades after a stroke in high school, Alexis Silvia is ready to get back in the race

New Hampshire Union Leader
January 19. 2013 8:34PM
Alexis Silvia lifts weights while working out at the YMCA in Goffstown on Wednesday. (DAVID LANE/UNION LEADER)

BEDFORD -- Twenty-one years ago Monday, Alexis Silvia's life changed substantially.

Then a 15-year-old sophomore at Manchester High School Central named Alexis Kershaw, Silvia was staying overnight with a friend when she suffered a stroke, the result of an arterial venous malformation that bled into the left side of her brain. An honor student who played soccer and ran track, Silvia underwent life-saving surgery at Manchester's Catholic Medical Center but emerged partially paralyzed and unable to speak.

Defying considerable odds, she has recovered to build a fulfilling life with her husband, Kevin, and their four children. And although she still suffers lingering effects from the stroke - including limited use of her right hand and ankle, and aphasia that hampers her speech - she has recently begun re-engaging in athletic endeavors.

Although she qualified for the state championship meet as a 600-meter winter track runner just before her stroke, Silvia has been limited primarily to working out on fitness machines since. Seeking something more than another elliptical cycle, she discovered an adaptive rowing program on Lake Sunapee and took to the water for the first time last summer. And she's collaborating with a Concord orthotist to be fitted for an ankle brace she hopes will help her achieve her goal of running a 5-kilometer road race.

"I really want to compete right now," Silvia said during a recent interview at her Bedford home.

Rowing back into athletics

Founded in 2011, the Lake Sunapee Rowing Club's adaptive program offers disabled individuals the chance to row recreationally or competitively, pairing them with experienced, able-bodied rowers in two-person shells on Lake Sunapee. Participants train on indoor rowing machines and may advance to single-rower shells or, in the case of one disabled rower, to the Bayada Regatta, one of the world's largest adaptive rowing events.

Silvia began attending the program's weekly gatherings at Mount Sunapee State Park in Newbury last summer. To help her propel the two-person adaptive shell, in which each rower uses two oars, club volunteers tethered her right hand to her right oar with a Velcro strap.

"We can do all kinds of different adaptations for (participants), to make it easier for them to row," said Harriet "Happy" Callaway, the program's coordinator.

Silvia was one of five disabled individuals who participated in the program last summer, among them individuals with multiple sclerosis and waist-down paralysis, Callaway said. Past participants have included a blind individual and a below-hip amputee, she added.

Participant Amanda Coviello, a Special Olympics New Hampshire athlete from Allenstown, won first place in her division at the 2012 Bayada Regatta in Philadelphia. Having observed Silvia last summer, Callaway suggested she might have similar potential.

"She progressed very quickly," Callaway said. "She might be somebody who could go to a regatta next summer."

While offering Silvia competitive possibilities, the program has benefited her mentally and physically, according to her husband.

"I just like her to have something to motivate her, something to look forward to and keep her in shape," Kevin said. "It helps with her weak side to keep her muscles active."

Thanksgiving goal

While continuing with her rowing, Silvia also is pursuing a return to running. Despite her long-held desire to run again, the condition of her right ankle has been, quite literally, a stumbling block. She tried wearing an ankle brace in the past, but the device was ill-fitting and uncomfortable, she said.

Technology that has emerged over the last five years has renewed Silvia's hope, however. Working with Phil Pincince, a certified orthotist at Concord's Capital Orthotics and Prosthetics, she is being fit for a lightweight carbon-fiber brace intended to stabilize her ankle while running.

The use of carbon fiber instead of plastic to manufacture braces has been a significant development for those with conditions like Silvia's, Pincince said.

"It's strong, lightweight material that I feel has really given people a better lease on life," he said. "It's lighter weight, lower profile and more comfortable to wear."

Carbon-fiber braces like the one for which Silvia is being fit can be worn with most shoes, and many health insurance plans cover at least a portion of their cost, which can range from $450 to $800, Pincince said.

With the prospect of running again on the horizon, Silvia has a hard time containing her excitement.

"I'm so happy," she said. "My goal is to run the Thanksgiving 5K in Manchester."

Watching Silvia trot into Northeast Delta Dental Stadium to finish this year's race - officially known as the Fisher Cats Thanksgiving Day 5K - would be special to Silvia's father, Newton Kershaw Jr., who along with his wife, Arlene, has advocated for their daughter on her two-plus decade journey with a brain injury.

"In the weeks after she survived the surgery and after she woke up from her coma, there were a bunch of people who said, 'Give up on her,' " said Kershaw, a Manchester attorney. "She hasn't given up. She's continued to care about her life and tomorrow and her children ...

"Doing something like running would be a public announcement, if you will. It would be extremely gratifying. It would be further fulfillment of how proud I am of her."

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