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‘I’m an athlete’: Omaha woman with MS stays positive on fitness journey ahead of Lincoln race | Live Well

On a recent Friday morning, Kim Freeman helps Kim Kozelichki start her day at a kitchen table.

Freeman slips Kozelichki’s arm into a teal windbreaker.

Kozelichki stands. She tugs on the zipper, struggling.

“Can you get it, Kim?” Freeman asks.

“Of course not,” Kozelichki says, matter-of-factly.

Kim Kozelichki’s frame is slight. Her hair highlighted blond. At 51, she wears thick librarian glasses as wide as her smile from her.

Her husband, Todd, hired Freeman to care for Kim during the day, while he works.

Kim Kozelichki has lived with multiple sclerosis for 26 years.

Although they have known one another only since early February, Kozelichki calls Freeman “Kim squared.”

With Freeman, Kozelichki can breathe contentedly knowing she has a friend who “gets her.”

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The doorbell rings. Kim’s ride has arrived.

She slowly walks out of the kitchen to the foyer, with each step, reminding herself: Heel-toe. Heel-toe.

Kim gingerly picks her way down one flight of carpeted stairs. Then another.

The toe of her navy Brooks sneaker catches on a step. Kim doesn’t jerk or start. She pauses, like a ballerina en pointe.

She lifts her foot and ventures through a door, passing through the garage, and into the sunlight and chilly air.

She lowers herself into a wheelchair. Freeman rolls Kim across the concrete driveway, where the door to a car stands ajar.

Kim hoists herself up and then eases down again into the sedan. Off to the gym.

“She’s a champion,” Freeman says.







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Kim Freeman, left, Kim Kozelichki’s home care provider, laughs with Kozelichki during her workout at MS Forward in Omaha.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


A few months ago, Renee Stewart, Kim’s nurse practitioner of four years, proposed that Kim, a former Division II college tennis player, participate in the 45th annual Lincoln Marathon.

On Sunday, the day of the race, Stewart and other members of Kim’s care team intend to push her in the half marathon. The team will use an adaptive jogging wheelchair until they make it to the finish near Memorial Stadium.

Kim intends to get out of her chair and cross the line on her feet.

The team expects 50 to 60 friends and family to show up to cheer Kim on.

Stewart said that about a year ago while jogging, she envisioned including a patient from the Multiple Sclerosis at Home Access program in the Lincoln race. She contemplated how she would cope with life’s stresses if she no longer could run.







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Nurse practitioner Renee Stewart (left) and physical therapist Nancy Lenz (right) help Kim Kozelichki walk several steps to prepare to walk across the finish line at their upcoming Lincoln Half Marathon.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


With MS, the immune system attacks the protective layers that line the body’s nerves. Cells are damaged, connections disrupted. As injuries accumulate, a person’s movement and cognition can be affected.

Some people exhibit no symptoms over their lifetimes, while others rapidly lose their ability to walk. MS also can cause disruptions to mood and memory.

Researchers estimate that nearly 1 million people in the United States live with the condition. It is three times as common among women as men. Newly diagnosed patients tend to be relatively young, between the ages of 20 and 50.

The disease can affect all facets of a person’s life, which makes comprehensive services a vital component of care.

That’s the philosophy that underlies the Multiple Sclerosis at Home Access program, through which Kim receives services.

Founded in 2013 by Kathleen Healey, a nurse practitioner and neuroscientist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, program staff meet patients at home to mitigate the transportation barriers people with MS face when attempting to navigate the health care system.

Addressing the challenges posed by MS requires more than the standard 30-minute office visit, said Stewart, who helps lead the program.

Stewart hopes to make the marathon an annual happening to raise awareness of the program and the importance of physical activity for patients with MS.







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Nurse practitioner Renee Stewart works on strength exercises with Kim Kozelichki during a routine follow-up visit at Kim’s Omaha home.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


During an April home visit, Stewart took a seat behind her laptop and reviewed Kim’s chart.

They discussed Kim’s recent hospitalization, which occurred after she contracted an infection. While Kim recovered, her dog, Honey, a chocolate Lab and chow cross, roamed the house. At night, Honey slept next to Todd on Kim’s side of the bed.

Kim was discharged and underwent a three-week stint in a rehabilitation center. Her physical strength returned.

The team reviewed Kim’s list of medications. She takes more than 10 a day. Some help decrease the chance of an MS relapse while others reduce symptoms common to MS such as muscle tremors and constipation.







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Nurse practitioner Renee Stewart (left), nurse Kristen Bayly (center), and physical therapist Nancy Lenz (right) secure Kim Kozelichki in an adaptive running wheelchair to train for their upcoming Lincoln Half Marathon.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


Numerous studies have highlighted the benefits of low- to moderate-intensity exercise for improving the quality of life, she said, but medical practitioners tend to under-prescribe it.

Muscles can be strengthened and stretched, reducing the fatigue, weakness and spasms that often accompany the disease. Exercises to improve balance can prevent falls. A depressed mood can get a lift.

Truth be told, Kim doesn’t much care for running. But she relishes exercise.

“I’m an athlete,” Kim said, “and I’m always going to be considered an athlete.”

The team persuaded Biogen, a biotechnology company, to sponsor their efforts. Stewart purchased T-shirts that say “Together we are MS strong.”

That people consider the Kozelichkis inspirational flatters the family, but they shy from the attention.

Yet if their participation raises awareness of the importance of exercise, Kim and Todd will gladly accept the role of spokespeople.

Kim will not stop moving. She can’t. To stop is to succumb to despair.

And what good would that do?







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Todd Kozelichki helps his wife, Kim Kozelichki, get out of her chair so she can stretch her legs at their home in Omaha.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


Kim can’t recall the day in May 1997 when she received her diagnosis.

The first signs of MS started the prior autumn with a tingling in her hands and feet. When Kim played tennis, she occasionally missed the ball and stumbled. A fiercely competitive player, she couldn’t hit her wicked overhead.

She figured she needed more practice.

Then months later, Kim’s left side went numb. Was it a stroke? Within a week, she received an answer.

The doctor’s pronouncement kicked her in the stomach.

Few treatments were available in the late 1990s that could change the course of MS, but Kim was one of a few patients selected locally to receive a recently approved chemotherapy that alleviated some of her symptoms.

Initially, Kim and Todd approached MS as something in their lives they needed to fix.

“Then you start realizing you don’t fix this,” Todd said. “You live with it.”

Kim began to make concessions.

She retired in 1999 from a bright career as a program manager for CSG Systems Inc., then a billing software company.

The two decided not to have children. With Todd’s demanding career with the Omaha Police Department, Kim could not imagine how he would be able to care for a child if her health deteriorated.

Todd Kozelichki, 51, now serves as a sergeant with the firearms squad in OPD’s gang unit.

Due to her MS, Kim has lost some of the mental acuity that Todd drew to her when they started dating in 1990, their junior year at Northwest Missouri State University.

Todd pursued Kim, drawn in by her vivacious personality.

But in recent years, on bad days, her mind flutters.

Conversations with Todd meander in circles. Kim doesn’t catch the repetition.

“Not being able to think like I used to drives me crazy,” she said. “I pray more, that’s for sure.”

She prays for other people. She prays for herself. When Todd gets frustrated, Kim asks God to enter her mind and help her release the thought that is tucked away.

When Todd looks at Kim, he talks with pride about a person who has pushed through a diagnosis for 26 years.

“I’m a positive person,” Kim said. “I don’t see any other choice…

“As long as I can get to the gym — I’m so happy when I get there.”







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Kim Kozelichki speaks to her friend, Cindy Munchrath, at her gym, MS Forward in Omaha.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


Kim arrives at MS Forward Friday morning.

She greets a circle of friends and head trainer Josh Kucera.

In 2001, Josh’s father, Daryl Kucera, opened a gym for high school athletes, then revamped it after he was diagnosed with MS a month later.

Now, it is one of the few spaces in Omaha where people with MS or other neurological disorders or injuries can work out together: a community that supports their physical, cognitive and emotional wellness.

The indoor facility sits in a strip mall in southwest Omaha, near a kid’s recreation center and Smokin Barrel BBQ.

Classmates rotate between exercise stations, consisting of props and machines, some worn and scratched from heavy use. A sign affixed to the ceiling reminds them to “Refuse to lose.”







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Kim Kozelichki works out at her gym, MS Forward.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


The pop anthem “Watch Me Shine” speaks through a Bluetooth speaker.

Josh carries a stopwatch and barks out sets.

Kim raises an 8-pound kettlebell above her head.

“Is that light, Koz?” Josh asks her.

They call her “Koz,” a nickname Daryl bestowed upon meeting Kim nearly two decades ago.

“Halfway!” Josh says. “Have seconds! Time! Relax!”

Kim exhales and moves to the next station, where she winds and unwinds a piece of rope around a pipe. As she rolls, a weight attached to one end rises and falls.

A few exercises later and Kim thwacks an Everlast punching bag.

“Are these jabs?” she asks Kim Freeman, who escorts her.

Kim Kozelichki takes a few more strikes.

“That’s enough to make somebody fall if they get too many of those,” Freeman says, chuckling.

The Lincoln race will be Kim’s first. But in another sense, it won’t.

Kim’s life is already a long one.







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From left, nurse practitioner Renee Stewart, physical therapist Nancy Lenz and nurse Kristen Bayly train with Kim Kozelichki for their upcoming half marathon in Lincoln. Kozelichki has lived with multiple sclerosis for 26 years.


EILEEN T. MESLAR, THE WORLD-HERA


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