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Pitt rehab specialist empowering others

Paralyzed in shooting, Kiel turns life-changing event into means to promote healing

Michael Kiel, a rehabilitation counselor and specialist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, said his primary goal is to keep his patients engaged with the world around them. Courtesy photo

Michael Kiel’s life was changed forever one April morning in 1993 when he was shot outside a convenience store.

The Portage native suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the neck down. His condition required months of hospitalization and occupational therapy, but in the decades since the life-altering assault, he’s used his trauma to bring healing and hope to the lives he touches every day.

“I think that’s about the only way you can find hope and healing; to be empowered and empowering (people) to see options, empowering them to see that their voice matters,” Kiel said.

A rehabilitation counselor and specialist at the University of Pittsburgh School of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, Kiel works with people with physical and cognitive disabilities. His goal is to help clients realize their potential despite the setbacks they face.

“Someone with a disability — people tend to lower the bar of expectations and that drives me batshit crazy,” Kiel said. “Lowering the bar because someone’s in a wheelchair or someone’s got autism: It’s a load of crap. Everyone’s got strengths and weaknesses, so maximizing the things you’re good at and limiting the obstacles that pop up from things you’re not so good at is really paramount.”

In 2019, Kiel published his memoir, titled “Challenge the Moment,” in which he recounts life before and after his traumatic injury.

He spoke at a Tyrone Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting at The Bull Pen Restaurant on Thursday. Kiel shared his story of perseverance and how he found passion for helping people with disabilities through his own experiences.

Kiel said the approach he takes with clients is simple: “It’s almost like basic problem-solving, sort of encouraging a different way of thinking.”

The primary goal for Kiel is to keep his patients engaged with the world around them, something he said isn’t encouraged often enough for people with disabilities.

“The people I’m working with are often overly protected by their parents or they’re overly cautious about what’s going on around them and that results in a person with a disability not having quite as big a voice in their life as they should. They should have an active voice on the things that are unfolding around them.”

During his undergraduate studies at Penn State Altoona and Edinboro University of Pennsylvania, Kiel majored in psychology. He also had a passion for engineering, but after he was injured, he realized he had a new calling.

“After I got shot, it really drove home that I wanted to focus more toward people with disabilities,” Kiel said. “I wanted to figure out my own stuff and it was the best way for me to interact with the world. If I could find a way to make a good life for myself, then I could help other people enjoy life as much, too.”

After graduating from Edinboro, Kiel decided to stay put. He earned a master’s in rehab counseling there before embarking on an experience that would change his life once again. He found an internship at

the Center for Assistive Rehab Technology, which reunited him with a familiar face. It was there he developed a lifelong friendship with Tammy Pelleschi, who had been his occupational therapist back when he was recovering from his injury.

“We met at that time of our lives and just worked off each other,” Pelleschi said. “I think that just gave me, as a therapist, a better approach with people, and him, with his degree in counseling, the ability to not only tell people that they can succeed, but to show them.”

Pelleschi, now a colleague of Kiel’s at Pitt, believes the two were destined to cross paths. Her father died from a spinal cord injury suffered in a car accident when she was younger, and she believes meeting Kiel presented her a touching opportunity.

“Mike and I had a connection because of that,” Pelleschi said. “I saw, through Mike, challenges my father would have gone through, but the challenges could be met differently because of technology that was able to provide someone with that loss of function the ability to complete their daily routine. Because of that experience (losing my father), it gave me that drive to want to understand more about spinal cord injuries. Mike, I believe, was put in my path to give me more of that drive.”

But Kiel doesn’t like being thought of as inspirational.

“I’ve always cringed at the idea of inspiring and being an inspiration,” he said. “I never look to do that. I like to encourage people and empower people.”

Still, others are impressed by his story.

“He never gives up,” Pelleschi said. “He never looks at the challenges that his disability gave him as an end. There’s inspiration in seeing that somebody can overcome anything.”

There’s one takeaway in particular that Kiel’s journey has left with Pelleschi, and it gives her hope.

“Whatever loss of ability that you have, you still can be whoever you want to be,” she said. “Your road may be different getting there, but you can still get there.”

Mirror Staff Writer Andrew Mollenauer is at 814-946-7428.

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