Alumni Stories

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Melissa Frentzel

Class of 1992

There are beautiful photos currently on display at the Andover Public Library … and a fascinating story about the woman who took them.

Not everyone has a moment of clarity – when you realize exactly what you’re supposed to be doing with your life – like 37-year-old Andover resident Melissa Kelly did.

She had been climbing the corporate ladder. But four years ago, she was bedridden with health problems, so what did that matter? Because of the trauma following surgery trying to correct thoracic outlet syndrome, Kelly’s condition deteriorated to the point where half her body was paralyzed.

Kelly’s job, before she took a leave of absence, was pharmaceutical sales. Specifically, she was selling medication for pain management, which is exactly what she said doctors were encouraging her to take to make her condition bearable.

“They had me on all kinds of medication,” Kelly said. “And they told me I would be on them for the rest of my life.”

But Kelly, as much pain as she was in, was sick of taking pills. She was even more sick of having her husband Justin have to do everything for her and their two young children at home.

The thoracic outlet is between the rib cage and the collar bone. Thoracic outlet syndrome is a rare condition that causes severe pain in the neck and shoulder. In Kelly’s case, two veins from her arm were completely blocked.

She didn’t need a heart transplant, which she was told was a possibility, but she also knew she couldn’t live like this.

“I couldn’t walk from my bedroom to the kitchen,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t pick up my daughter. I couldn’t dress myself. I couldn’t even do my hair. Justin had to do everything for me. He’s a really humble, low-key kind of guy. Knowing him, he’ll probably tell you it was no big deal.”

Melissa Kelly knows her husband.

“I had to help her, but I really didn’t do that much,” he said. “She could still move her other arm.”

Miracle in Minnesota

The Kellys were going to a doctor’s appointment practically every day, and she always left feeling unsatisfied.

“Everybody wants a pill to fix something,” Kelly said. “But I knew I couldn’t live like that. It was horrible. There had to be something I could do.”

She boldly decided to take action. She admitted herself to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

Doctors there put her on an intense regiment of five hours of physical therapy a day. They put her in touch with people who could help her continue the movements, including yoga, back home.

“I had to go clear to Rochester, Minn. to find these people in Wichita,” she said. “But I learned a lesson. If you ever have anything wrong, I mean seriously wrong, you go immediately to the Mayo Clinic.”

Kelly was diligent about the rehab, and it worked. She said she is on no medication at all. If you met her today, you would never know what she went through.

So how does photography enter into this?

Kelly has been obsessed with taking pictures since she was 4 years old. She went on to earn a degree in art history from the University of Kansas. She got married and continued to use photography as a hobby. But she was also a skilled sales representative, and that’s what paid the bills.

“I did what everybody says you’re ‘supposed’ to do,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s health issues caused her to re-examine her career of selling pain medication. It should be noted this was about the time of the Schneider “pill mill” scandal, in which a Haysville physician and his wife were convicted of – among other charges – illegally prescribing pain killers that resulted in the deaths of dozens of patients.

“I’m probably not going to make some people happy by saying this,” Kelly said. “But I was seeing a cycle of medication being over prescribed. People were taking no accountability for their own health. I decided life is too short. I don’t want to be part of this system.”

Following her first love

Friends are constantly asking Kelly to take photos of their families, or their babies, or their high school seniors. But Kelly’s true joy comes in finding a simple object that catches her eye - something other people might ignore - and finding beauty in it.

“She takes her camera everywhere, to the point where it becomes annoying,” said Alyssa Donnelly, one of Kelly’s best friends. “She’ll hold up our whole group because she’s back behind us taking a picture of a flower or something. Then later you’ll see the picture and you’re saying, ‘Are you kidding? This is amazing.' It’s really a passion for her, and she obviously has a gift for it.”

Kelly’s photo display will be at the Andover Library through September. She is donating 30 percent of the proceeds back to the library.

“Just my way of paying it forward,” she said.

After that, the display will move to City Arts in Old Town Square.

After that, Kelly will be opening a photography studio in downtown Wichita. She is in the process of renovating a 750 square feet manufacturing space into MK Designs, located at 557 S. Topeka.

“I really don’t know what’s going to happen,” Kelly said. “That’s kind of the great thing about owning your own business. I want to do what makes me happy. If my images can provide sort of an escape or enjoyment for people, and I can share that with them, then that’s what I need to do. It’s a better quality of life."

The photographs of Melissa Kelly will be on display at the Andover Public Library, 1511 E. Central, through September. Gallery hours are 9 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and 9: a.m.-3 p.m. Saturday. Adam Knapp is Editor-in-Chief of the Andover American.
Copyright 2011 Andover American. Some rights reserved

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