Waleska Kelly is feeling rather guilty these days.
Her identical twin sister, Francheska, keeps trying to tell her not to say such things, that everything she does stems from her love for Waleska and their tight-knit family residing at Pawtucket's Prospect Heights. That still doesn't make her self-imposed culpability wane.
The way she views the situation, if she hadn't suffered a stroke this summer, just a few weeks before her senior year at Davies Tech – where she starred for the girls' hoop and softball squads – Francheska wouldn't have been deemed academically ineligible to play basketball for Tolman High in her final campaign.
Because of the stroke, and because their mother, Nelly, doesn't drive, Francheska took it upon herself to transport her sister to doctors' appointments, hospitals, rehab clinics and the like. As a result, Francheska – the kid sister by approximately one minute – let her scholastic duties to slide.
“I do feel guilty; Francheska has done so much for me,” Waleska said softly after attending a recent practice inside the Patriots' Gaskin Alumni Hall, where she cheered on her teammates.
Noted Francheska: “She will say, 'Why did this happen to me? Why can't I be a normal teen-ager? I want so badly to play basketball, but I know I can't. When can I go back to school?' I hear that every day, and it makes me feel sad for her.
“She kept saying that it was her fault, but I keep telling her that everything happens for a reason, and that everything will be all right,” she added. “I say, 'We're just going to take it day-by-day, OK?'”
Waleska immediately piped up, “We're so close. We always have been. We do everything together, even more now. I can't watch TV because I get headaches, so Francheska will help me with homework (from her rehab center), or we'll make stuff in the kitchen, or we'll listen to music, or just talk.
“My goals right now are just to get better. I want to get all of my memory back, all my speech back. I feel like I've improved – a lot – but I've still got a ways to go. I just feel bad because I'm missing my senior year, and I was the captain (of the basketball team). She's a co-captain, too (at Tolman), and now we're both missing it.”
Francheska just looked at her sister, but her eyes told all.
“Waleska, cut it out! Right now, it's all about you!”
How all of this came to be is an astonishing tale, one Waleska initially believed to be a nightmare, one in which she'd wake up and everything would be fine.
It all started the evening of Sunday, July 14. The two had been playing in a summer girls’ basketball league game at Johnston High.
All seemed well when the tilt ended at about 6:45 or 7 p.m.; Francheska jumped into the driver’s seat of her car while Waleska and four teammates climbed through the other doors.
“We were on our way back to Pawtucket, and – all of a sudden – Waleska turned her head and asked the girls, ‘Did we win?’” Francheska recalled. “I immediately said, ‘What do you mean?’ When she said it again, I knew something was wrong. I just started crying. That’s so unlike her.
“I asked her if she was OK, and she was just mumbling,” she added. “She finally looked at me and said, ‘I feel like I’m having a seizure.’ Once we got back to Pawtucket, we were over by Shea, she kept passing out. I stopped the car, and we put her in the back seat. I kept thinking, ‘Go get Mom, then we’ll go to the hospital.’ We did, and (Tolman student-athlete) McKenzie Hofknecht called 9-1-1 while Sylvia Lopes put a cold facecloth on Waleska’s head.
“I was really scared, and so was my mom. Waleska didn’t know what was wrong, and neither did we.”
Once an ambulance arrived, Nelly Kelly and her daughter trekked the short distance from Prospect Heights to The Memorial Hospital of Pawtucket; Francheska followed with Hofknecht and Lopes in her vehicle. Doctors conducted some tests, finally diagnosing Waleska as having seizures and a migraine-like headache. They were sent home at about 1 a.m. – without any medication.
The terrible prognosis came the following afternoon after Nelly and her eldest twin visited the girls’ primary care physician, Dr. Megan Moore, who immediately told them to go to Hasbro Children’s Hospital in Providence, that doctors would be waiting for her. Hours later, they informed Waleska she had suffered a stroke.
“I don’t remember anything,” Waleska noted after that practice. “I didn’t know who I was.”
Mentioned Francheska: “My mom came home and told me my sister had a stroke, and I was shocked. I started crying again. I was, like, how could this happen? Nobody knew how or why, or what kind of stroke it was, except it (affected) the left side of her brain.”
Amazingly, Davies head coach Joe Handy didn’t find out about his prized athlete until close friend and Tolman coach Tammy Drape phoned him one night in late July.
“She left a message saying only, ‘Call me,’ so I was wondering what was up,” he said. “I called her back the next day and she gave me the news; I was speechless. When you do what I do day-in and day-out year after year, these kids become like your own. You worry about them. You want to make sure they’re always out of harm’s way.
“They become an extension of your own family,” he added. “I texted Waleska right away – you know kids nowadays, they don’t pick up the phone. They’d rather text. I asked her, ‘How are you?’ And she sent one back, ‘Good, how are you?’
“I couldn’t get any read off it, so I texted her the next day. She told me she had a stroke, and that her mom had signed her out of Davies so she could go to rehab. I was stunned. I knew she would be deemed academically ineligible, but that didn’t bother me; I just wanted her healthy. I later discovered she was reading only at a fifth-grade level.
“She said she would do that to ‘fix my memory. I forget a lot of things.’ That cut through me like a knife. I saw her later, and she knew me, which made me feel great, but the feeling I got reading the text told me she had a long way to go.”
Doctors informed Nelly, who doesn’t speak English and suffers from a neurological disorder, and Francheska that they wanted Waleska to attend Hasbro’s Pediatric Partial Program.
According to its Web site, it’s New England’s lone daily treatment program for children ages six to 18 with medical and/or emotional issues.
It stated, “Often the burden of illness makes it difficult for children to go to school. The program creates a safe, nurturing environment that allows children and families to participate in activities and therapy in a climate of healing.”
The night of the stroke, Francheska texted Drape, who had been coaching the team that afternoon, to tell her she was bringing her sister to Memorial.
“I’ve known those girls for years; I used to teach them (as a physical education instructor) at Jenks Junior High,” Drape offered. “When I found out, I beelined for the hospital, and Waleska thought I was her swim coach … There was a nurse there I knew, and she let me in because she knew how close I was to them. Still, no one knew what was going on. Francheska had told me she had been in and out of consciousness on the way back home.
“I was pretty concerned because I knew Waleska from Davies,” she continued. “She’s a phenomenal athlete. They both are; they both have different talents, but they're forces on the floor.
“I’ve seen them develop and mature; they’ve become better behaviorally, academically and athletically; they’re also getting the social aspect better. I just can’t believe this happened to such a gifted athlete.
“Those girls are so tight; they get along so well. We actually joke about it because I’m a twin, too. My sister passed away, but I could tell we (all) had a lot in common. They feed off each other, and I think it’s because they’re twins but also because they’ve spent their whole lives taking care of their mom and younger brother (Wandy, now 13).
“When I found out, my first thought was, ‘That’s impossible! It’s got to be a mis-diagnosis.’ I mean, you never hear of a 17-year-old in great health having a stroke.”
For days before attending the near five-week partial program, which began on July 21, Waleska mentioned she often would see a little blonde girl in her home. The sight disturbed her.
“She didn’t have a name, but she told me to jump from my house window,” she recalled while sitting in an athletic office, her twin by her side, after Thursday’s practice.
Immediately, Handy – whom Waleska affectionately calls “Papa Joe-Joe” – stated, “You don’t understand. The girl was never there; she was hallucinating.”
Once she started getting help within that program, however, “the girl went away,” Waleska confided with a grin. “I didn’t miss her at all. She freaked me out!”
On Aug. 27, Waleska began more treatment at the well-known Sargent Rehabilitation Center in Warwick. The staff there delivers to those who suffer traumatic brain injuries, accidents or strokes the opportunity to gain physical, occupational or speech therapy on an outpatient basis.
Fast forward to Monday, Dec. 2, the afternoon of the Patriots’ initial tryout session for the winter campaign: That’s when Handy saw Waleska for the first time in weeks. She approached him and gave him a hug.
This was the same girl who as a junior had led the team in rebounds (averaging 15 per game) and blocks (three) while scoring 10 points, second only behind then-senior tri-captain Kaitlin Flynn in points.
“I knew she was down, the fact she wasn’t going to school and couldn’t play,” Handy stated. “I also knew this went far beyond basketball. This was all about a bright, talented girl’s life and health. When I saw her, I teared up. It was emotional. She told everybody, ‘I miss you guys!’
“I had Kaitlin Flynn there, and it was a truly emotional atmosphere. She was happy to be there and so full of energy. It was just like when she was playing, very (vociferous) and hard-working.
“After my original introduction to the team, I pulled Waleska forward and let everyone know what type of player she was,” he continued. “I also said, ‘This girl has a medical issue, and she can’t play right now, but I know Waleska. She’d do anything to be out here playing the game she loves, and I expect all of you to do the same.
“I told them, ‘No matter what, Waleska is our captain. She deserves it.’ Everyone was listening and very intense. I think they understood why I said what I did.
“It’s funny because I was once told that a big problem I had was that I couldn’t separate myself from being a father and a coach; I still coach my son and daughter in youth sports. That statement was hurtful, and I didn’t like it one bit, but then I look at a situation like Waleska’s … I thought of how long I’ve been doing this and why. My belief is it’s all about the kids, end of discussion.
“You want to see them improve not only as athletes but people. You develop a camaraderie and trust with them, and you see that they genuinely like being around you and their teammates at practice.
“The sad part is she’s not attending Davies right now, so she can’t represent the team, but it’s no surprise that when we practice or play, she wants to be involved. She’s determined to get well, but – honestly – I have to tell her to bring it down a notch because she gets so enthusiastic. She’ll yell at them, ‘Work harder!’
“That tells me, despite her condition, her heart and determination haven’t been affected. I’m so hopeful for her.”
Those are all reasons why Handy now places her home jersey No. 2 on his chair prior to every home tilt.
“She actually asked me why her jersey was there when we played Woonsocket, and I told her it would stay there for every game until she could wear it again,” he smiled. “Scott Cooper and I will do the same thing this softball season.”
Drape knew Francheska was spending a lot of time helping her sister, but wasn't aware she was missing so much schoolwork.
She indicated she kept thinking she could make up the work she had missed. To be honest, though, she knew deep down it would be impossible. She nevertheless didn't care.
Family comes first.
“I have a code to my coaching; I tell the girls all the time, 'The three things you need to focus on are, first, family, then school, then sports,'” she stated. “I told Francheska she did just what I'd want anyone to do. I just wish she had expressed to me that she was struggling to keep up in school. I would've got her some assistance.
“I'm not surprised one bit that Francheska has done so much – it's part of her make-up, her DNA,” she continued. “The twins both take care of their mother and brother … I actually saw Waleska at a (Tolman) home game on Dec. 12, and you could tell she was working really hard to get back to where she academically and in her life. She was completely upbeat. I can't imagine what she's been through. A lot of kids would say, 'I can't do it. It's too hard.'
“The only thing that was bothering her was Francheska not being able to play. In retrospect, I saw Waleska about a week before, on Dec. 3, and she said she was sorry. She told me she felt responsible for Francheska being ineligible. I asked her not to feel that way, but you knew that was impossible.”
In the athletic office after the Davies' practice both Kellys attended, Handy decided to make one thing crystal clear.
“What needs to be said here is all of the sacrifices that had to be made by Francheska,” he said forcefully. “She had to step up and become an adult really fast. She not only had to take care of Waleska and make sure she got to those appointments, but also care for her mother and Wandy.
“I've been teaching my girls this since they were freshmen, and Waleska knows there's one thing I won't tolerate – those are the words, 'I can't,'” he added. “If someone says that to me during a drill, I make them all run laps. If I give them something to do, I know they can do it.”
Handy looked at Waleska and asked, 'Will you play again?' and the girls responded, 'I don't know.' He said it one more time, and she just laughed, “Yes!”
There's good news for the Kellys as the holidays approach: Francheska has been attending her Tigers' practices and games, and has become sort of Drape's volunteer assistant. She also has maintained honorary co-captainship with Marlene DeBarros while going back to school.
As for Waleska, she's been cleared to play basketball, not for the Pats but in pick-up games or shoot-arounds. That directive came from seven doctors just a couple of weeks ago.
“I'm still at a fifth-grade reading level,” she acknowledged before Francheska interrupted, “But she's back to 12th-grade levels in math and history! All she's got to do is improve her reading, and she'll be back. I know it!”
Waleska looked at her sister, eyes beaming.
For Francheska, that's the best gift of all.