A Beautiful Life

Michelle collage

Michelle Lynn Kistler
January 8, 1974 - October 2, 2003

In loving memory of Michelle, who died suddenly and unexpectedly from complications of a bone infection. 

“Her middle name was go – that’s what she liked to do”.  Jennifer Kistler is speaking of her daughter, Michelle Lynn Kistler.  Michelle was born with spina bifida, but that never stopped her from living life to the fullest.  Despite the hardships she had in her life, she accomplished the goals she set for herself and was always there for other people in need.  She was an inspiration to everyone who knew her, even from the beginning of her life. 

When Michelle was six months old, Jennifer enrolled in nursing school so that she would be able to provide specialized care for Michelle at home.  Jennifer’s mother Betty took care of Michelle while Jennifer attended classes.  Jennifer also started the Fort Smith chapter of the Spina Bifida Association of America, an educational support group of parents and survivors of spina bifida, and built a swimming pool in her back yard for Michelle and others to enjoy swimming and aquatic therapy. 

According to Martha Osbun, physical therapist, “Michelle was the catalyst for the establishment of the Kistler Center.”   Indeed, it was Michelle’s need for specialized rehabilitative treatment, coupled with her Uncle Gregory’s needs – both of which could not be addressed in this area – that inspired the Kistlers and caring community members to establish The Gregory Kistler Center.  While the Center was named after Gregory, “SB Popcorn” (short for spina bifida) was established in honor of Michelle.  Until it was sold, profits from SB Popcorn provided operational support for the Kistler Center. 

Jennifer remembers the early years of the Kistler Center: “Michelle was our very first patient.  We didn’t even have a mat then - Betty Colley treated her on the floor.”  At that time, pediatric wheelchairs were not readily available, so Wayne Kistler built a caster cart for Michelle and other children with similar needs.  He also made the first pair of pediatric parallel bars for strength and gait training for Michelle, which are still used today by therapists at the Kistler Center. 

There were many “firsts” for Michelle and her family. Michelle was in the first group of spina bifida survivors, thanks to a break-through in the design of a shunt to drain the build-up of fluid from the brain, known as hydrocephalus.  Hydrocephalus is just one of the many complications of spina bifida, a condition in which the neural tube, or spine, does not close properly during development.  Besides the central nervous system, spina bifida can affect other systems in the body, including the urinary, circulatory, and musculo-skeletal systems. Michelle had many complications: in the twenty-nine years of Michelle’s life, she had twenty-eight major operations.

Amazingly, Michelle always bounced back after each surgery or hospitalization, and never complained.  She always maintained a sweet and cheerful disposition, and strove to accomplish many milestones: she graduated from high school, learned to drive a specially adapted van, and worked successfully at a part-time job while committing much of her time volunteering to help others. 

Her tenacity was evident in her desire to drive.  Although she faced great opposition from high school administration to take driver’s education, she and her mother insisted she be given the opportunity.  And though she did take the class, it was really her grandfather Wayne that taught her to drive.  He modified a van with hand controls for Michelle, and put a wedge behind her back to keep her straight in the seat.  He took her to Ft. Chaffee for hands-on instruction, and she quickly learned to drive.  

As Michelle and her grandfather got older, she began to care for him as he had for her.  Wayne’s vision became impaired, so Michelle chauffeured him wherever he needed to go.  “She became my eyes and my wheels”, Wayne said of Michelle.   Michelle took him to the grocery store, and would read labels to him as he shopped.  They also had a standing date for dinner every Friday night since she was six years old.  Her mom and her grandmother Betty, as well as other friends, would often join them. 

Michelle had many friends, but none as close as Sharon Baumgartner.   Sharon assisted Michelle with daily living, but she soon became much more than a client to Sharon: “She was like a sister to me. Michelle brought joy into my life I would never have experienced had I not met her.”  

One of the best times they spent was jet skiing at Lake DeGray State Park this summer.  A good swimmer, Michelle always loved the water, and riding the jet ski was one of the greatest adventures of her life!  Michelle enjoyed many activities, including making jewelry and pottery, two hobbies she and her mother did together.  She loved to scrapbook and bake, and even won a baking contest at Wal-Mart for her famous chocolate chip cookies.

In keeping with her generous nature, Michelle often brought her cookies to the staff of the Kistler Center, and volunteered for many of our special events.  She assisted with mail-outs and general office work as well.  In fact, Michelle volunteered as an office assistant for a group of anesthesiologists for eight years before going to work as a secretary for a local company. 

According to her supervisor, “Michelle was a good Christian and she led by example.  She was always pleasant and sweet, and she was truly dedicated.”  To illustrate that dedication, Michelle was involved in an auto accident on her way to work.  The accident was no fault of her own, and as soon as the police officer made a report and her van was towed, Michelle drove her wheelchair to the office!

That is the kind of person Michelle was.  As her mother says, “You couldn’t keep her down”.  Jennifer’s love and devotion for Michelle, coupled with her no-nonsense parenting, played an important role in the development of Michelle’s can-do spirit.  Michelle was treated as a typical child and given expectations that made her responsible.  She contributed to the household in many ways: she kept her room and her bathroom clean and cooked and ran household errands.  She was strong and responsible despite her physical challenges.

Michelle also was impeccably groomed, and took pride in her appearance. She always had her nails done and loved for Sharon to fix her hair in a French braid.

A beautiful baby and a pretty girl, Michelle had grown into “a classy lady” as her grandfather liked to refer to her.

But it was Michelle’s strong faith that her mother believes was most remarkable:  “Michelle was always happy and never had a bad word to say about anyone.  She had a good heart and a loving nature, but most of all she displayed the quality of endurance.”  Her best friend Sharon concurs, saying “Michelle was an inspiration we should all live by: happy and independent, with a good spirit about her.  She went on with the cards that were dealt to her and made the best of them.”