On the first day of Ana Stelplugh’s life, she had to fight for it. The episode affected her both physically and mentally, but it made her count her burdens and blessings the same way.
Now entering her final semester at La Crescent-Hokah High School as an avid reading, college-bound, a weather expert, sports statistician and six-year member of the math team, it’s hard to believe that Stelplugh suffered a major stroke the day she was born.
The stroke affected two-thirds of one side of Stelplugh’s brain, or “a third of my entire brain,” as she describes it, and also impaired her vision and her right hand. Stelplugh’s restrictions did little to hold her back in school, though, as she excelled in her classes and scored a 28 on her first attempt at the ACT. After recently receiving her acceptance letter, Stelplugh decided she’ll be attending Viterbo University next fall.
Because of Stelplugh’s incredible perseverance, academic accomplishments and dedicated community contributions, she was selected as the La Crosse Tribune Extra Effort Award winner for the La Crescent-Hokah School District.
Stelplugh’s incredible backstory and innate kindness weren’t enough to keep her from getting bullied.
“It was a couple specific guys that would do it,” Ana said. “And occasionally a couple of their friends might join in, but there were just two main perpetrators. When I got into ninth grade, they seemed to grow up.”
Stelplugh said that getting bullied made her feel hopeless at the time, but the experience ultimately taught her she’d have to start sticking up for herself. Once she reached high school, Ana had developed more confidence and began embracing her strengths.
“At the beginning of her freshman year, Ana wasn’t much of an advocate for herself, and she was very quiet and shy, and would often be looking down,” Special Services teacher Melanie Zitzner said. “And now she has that self-confidence, and she exudes it.”
Administrative Assistant Janet Redman said she requested that Stelplugh work as an office assistant again this year after she did such a superb job her junior year. Redman said Stelplugh comes into work every day knowing exactly what needs to be done, and sometimes tells the office staff what to do.
“I have seen her grow in so many ways over the six years I’ve known her,” said Allison Kaatz, who teaches math and coached Ana on the math team. Kaatz said Stelplugh assists younger team members and is always making sure they are informed and included.
Stelplugh has volunteered for countless organizations and events, including at the public library, in the historical society archives and at various food shelves. This past Halloween, Stelplugh was in charge of sorting donations from the Trick-or-Treat for Food event, when small groups went door to door to gather canned goods for the food shelf.
“It just makes me feel good that I’m available and able to help others,” Stelplugh said.
A difficult start
Lisa Stelplugh, Ana’s mother, said her daughter continued battling health issues throughout her most vulnerable years, overcoming Respiratory Syncytial Virus, a potentially fatal condition for infants, and infantile spasms. She said that when doctors talked about Ana’s chances back then, they didn’t hold back their doubts.
“They didn’t think she would make it,” Lisa said, remembering the panic throughout the Intensive Care Unit room that held her first child, just a few hours old. Lisa remembers watching with her husband, Brian, as the doctor made a successful incision to their newborn daughter’s heart, which she said saved her life. After receiving differing theories on Ana’s condition from doctors across the country, Lisa decided that the most important thing for her to do was just be Ana’s mother.
“We even had a lawyer call us, asking if we wanted to proceed with legal action against the hospital,” Lisa said. “I said absolutely not, because you know what, they saved her life, and we’re not spending years in court when I just want to enjoy the time I have with her. I wouldn’t want her any other way because she wouldn’t be Ana if she was any other way.”
Along with unconditional love, Lisa said that her daughter taught her what resilience looked like. Lisa remembers having to give what she calls “harpoon shots” to Ana, which were delivered each day from a lab in California for her treatment.
“When she’d have to get the shots done at the doctor, she’d look up to the nurse afterward while balling from the pain, and say, ‘thank you,” Lisa said.
Lisa said she started reading to Ana the day she was born, at first as a mechanism to alleviate her own constant fears. By the time Ana turned 3, she could read on her own. At first she thought her daughter had simply memorized the books; it wasn’t until Lisa checked out different library books that she made the realization.
Ana still has the reading bug today, preferring fiction, but only reading fantasy and science fiction in moderation. Her interest in the Harry Potter series faded before Harry passed his first Ordinary Wizarding Level.
Two of Stelplugh’s favorite things are sports and math, so it makes sense that her dream job is to be a statistician for one of her favorite teams. She got the chance to keep stats for the junior varsity baseball team last spring, where she enjoyed her job of monitoring pitch counts. Ana said she loves to watch almost every sport, but if she had to choose a favorite, it would probably be soccer. She likes to root for the national teams, and for Minnesota United.
“I cheer for all Minnesota teams, and in tribute to Mom’s Michigan roots, I cheer for any Detroit teams, and definitely Michigan State over Michigan,” Ana said.
Lisa said her daughter is also the family’s designated meteorologist, as she’s always up-to-date with forecasts and conditions. Ana said if being a statistician didn’t pan out, she’d consider a career in meteorology, but would prefer it to be behind the scenes. In whatever career field she chooses to pursue, it won’t take long for Ana to show how much of an asset she is.
“Because she’s such a hard worker, I could see her being the backbone of a company one day, knowing everything that’s going on and what everybody needs to be doing,” Zitzner said.