Atlanta, GA,
09:30 AM

Celebrating Milestones Helps Attorney Cope through Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation

April Ross of Atlanta heads back to the courtroom after surviving an attack.

When April Ross, 34, of Atlanta, Georgia, was admitted to Shepherd Center, her mother came walking in with a bucket of stones. The stones would represent milestones in her recovery – her movement from the intensive care unit (ICU) to the Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program and then to the Spinal Cord Injury Day Program.

Each time April achieved another milestone, another rock went into the bucket. There’s a rock marking when April began eating on her own, a rock for when April started holding a cup on her own, a rock for when she started moving one arm and then both arms. It became a tradition that April looked forward to. Each new stone in the bucket became a symbol of her hard work and perseverance, and a step in her journey.

“She would write on the stone and drop it into the bucket,” April says. “It was a long road, and it wasn’t always rosy, but I always tried to stay positive.”

The first few hours and days after the shooting are hazy. April, an up-and-coming Fulton County Assistant District Attorney in Atlanta, remembers asking in the ambulance if she was going to die. She also vaguely recalls wondering aloud if she was paralyzed.

News reports of the shooting say April was alert and answering questions as the ambulance rushed her to Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital. She doesn’t quite remember it the same way.

The image and moment that does remain clear in her mind to this day is of sitting in her car on Fairway Circle with friend Levon Hailey, discussing the next steps in his court proceedings.

April, who was in the driver’s seat, turned to say something to her friend and out of the corner of her eye, she saw her soon-to-be ex-husband, Tranard McConnell. He was standing outside the passenger side window.

Next, April saw her husband raising his arm, and she heard a loud pop. After that, all sounds and images descended into an incoherent blur.

“Even at the moment it was happening, it took me a while to process that it was happening, that I was being shot – and being shot by him no less,” April recalls.

The 31-year-old Emory University School of Law graduate, who had just been assigned to one of the Fulton County District Attorney’s biggest cases of the year – the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal – was shot three times before it was over. She sustained gunshot wounds to her jaw, arm and back and was in critical condition as the ambulance rushed her to the hospital.

News accounts of the days that followed reported that her condition was critical and that April faced an uncertain future. The shooting had left the bright young legal star paralyzed from the chest down.

After about one week at Grady, April transferred to Shepherd Center’s ICU. She arrived on a ventilator with her mouth wired shut, and with the exception of being able to turn her head slightly, April could not move much of her body.

The next six months were spent working tirelessly with therapists in Shepherd Center’s Spinal Cord Injury Rehabilitation Program and Day Program to push herself back from that brink – to regain movement and independence.

Physical therapist Kati Vines was among the first to work with April, as part of the inpatient therapy program. She recalls a patient who arrived with many challenges including not being able to speak or use her right arm. April was also experiencing intense pain from all of her injuries.

“Even with all of that, April always wanted to do whatever she could, as far as getting up and pushing hard every day,” Vines says. “She was always a fighter, from day one.”

Initial therapy focused on helping April to get out of bed with minimal assistance, stretching and upper-body strengthening. Later, she began engaging in sports conditioning to improve balance and core strength.

Occupational therapist Shannon Schneider was also part of April’s recovery team, spending five days a week, 90 minutes a day, with her. During that time, Schneider saw firsthand April’s remarkable motivation and perseverance.

“April was a very hard worker,” Schneider says. “She knew her goal and what she wanted to achieve and didn’t stop until she got there. She never said no to anything we wanted her to do.”

April recovered remarkably quickly considering everything she had been through physically and emotionally. During the time she was at Shepherd Center, April went from being totally dependent on others for self care to feeding herself, using her phone, doing her own grooming and writing.

“She never gave up, even when she faced so many challenges,” Schneider says. “It would have been very easy to shut down and quit, and she never did.”

“Shepherd created such a safe haven for me,” April explains. “It was such a comfortable environment because everyone around you is doing the same thing – fighting for their lives. I loved the camaraderie, the family feeling, the encouragement.”

After leaving Shepherd Center, April moved in with her parents. But life has been changing rapidly since then.

In November 2015, April returned to the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, where she works part-time on the appeal of the Atlanta Public Schools case. In addition, the ambitious young attorney has been writing a book, one she hopes to finish this fall. She’s also establishing a foundation and developing a curriculum for young people to help them deal with the end of a relationship.

“It’s not enough to go to an auditorium and talk to kids about relationship issues. It’s important for kids to learn early how to deal with rejection and your emotions when it’s time to walk away,” April explains.

Just a few months ago, April even moved into her own place, a few miles from her parent’s home. She has a caregiver who assists her, but April is now able to be alone for much longer stretches of time.

And in between all of these milestones, April has also managed to complete driving training and have her van modified so that she can drive independently.

“I am one week into this driving thing,” she says. “It's been very exciting and scary, but mostly exciting.”

Time to put another rock in the bucket.

Written by Mia Taylor
Photos by Louie Favorite

About Shepherd Center

Shepherd Center provides world-class clinical care, research, and family support for people experiencing the most complex conditions, including spinal cord and brain injuries, multi-trauma, traumatic amputations, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and pain. An elite center recognized as both Spinal Cord Injury and Traumatic Brain Injury Model Systems, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News as one of the nation’s top hospitals for rehabilitation. Shepherd Center treats thousands of patients annually with unmatched expertise and unwavering compassion to help them begin again.