Trauma to Triumph
Young intern sustains a spinal cord injury in a random shooting, but shows a positive attitude, hard work and family support can return her to a full life.
Lauren Garcia, 23, had brought leftover lasagna for lunch at her office desk on July 15, 2011. Recently graduated from the University of Georgia, Lauren was an intern at a Midtown Atlanta public relations firm. That meant a couple of things. She was laying the groundwork for a successful career. But she was also living on an intern’s wages.
So leftover lasagna had a practical appeal. But Lauren was only human. When co-workers invited her to walk across the street to the upscale South City Kitchen to welcome a new staffer at MSL Atlanta, the lure of she-crab soup and fried green tomatoes, and the natural inclination to say yes when co-workers asked, meant last night’s supper was staying in the refrigerator.
While walking across the street to the restaurant, Lauren saw a speeding car, heard the honk of a horn and then heard what sounded like a gunshot.
She took another step and then crumbled to the ground. Her thoughts began flashing furiously:
“What’s going on? I’m having a stroke. Did the cars wreck? Was I hit by something from the car?
“No blood. That’s good.
“I can’t feel my legs. I can’t feel my legs. 911! 911!”
“A million things were running through my mind,” she recalls. “Would I walk again? Was I going to die? I knew I didn’t have any use of my legs. I had no idea what was going on. Did something happen like a stroke, a medical problem on my part? I was scared to death it was something that was going to kill me.”
Indeed, it was life threatening. Lauren was shot in the back in a Midtown
Atlanta shooting that killed another woman. Emergency room personnel at Grady Memorial Hospital worked quickly to save Lauren’s life.
The chaotic, confounding minutes of the July 15 shooting make no more sense today than they did six months ago. A suspect is in custody, charged with murder, felony murder, aggravated assault and gun possession. The parents and husband of a woman who worked in the same building, but with a different company than Lauren, still grieve the death of their daughter and wife. And Lauren, paralyzed from the waist down, very likely will never walk again.
Doctors at Shepherd Center, where Lauren was admitted for rehabilitation less than a week after the shooting, have said her complete T-10 spinal cord injury almost never morphs into an incomplete injury. The latter would mean she’d have a chance at walking again. But almost never and never are two different things to Lauren.
“I’ve had some twinges in my legs that doctors didn’t think I’d have,” she says, “so we’re keeping hope.”
Her physician at Shepherd Center, Associate Medical Director Brock Bowman, M.D., is perfectly fine with Lauren’s approach.
“She is still early in the course of recovery from her injury,” Dr. Bowman says. “There is a natural recovery window of about a year to 18 months, and the first three to six months are usually when you get the greatest recovery. But things could change. It is possible to go from complete to incomplete. It’s hard to know what sensations like those twinges in her legs mean as far as whether they’ll go further. She’d have to improve four levels to get movement in her legs. Most, statistically, improve one to two levels. So statistically, it’s not good. But we’ve seen it. For now, we’ll deal with the here and now.”
And living in the here and now is exactly what Lauren is doing. During her two months of inpatient rehabilitation at Shepherd Center, Lauren secured a permanent, fulltime job at MSL Atlanta and an engagement ring. Emotionally, she’s willing to live in the past long enough to talk about the moments immediately following the shooting.
“It was divine intervention that kept cars from hitting me while I was lying in the street,” Lauren says. “It was Friday at lunch at a busy corner in Midtown. My friend and co-worker, Rachel, ran over and was asking, ‘Do you know what happened?’ I said no. She looked to see if I was bleeding, but she couldn’t see it. She thought it might be OK.
“An off-duty EMT came up and asked to help, and someone came and offered me a sweater. The ambulance got there and asked me who had done this to me and whether there was anyone after me. I was just telling them I couldn’t breathe. I was conscious the whole time, never blacked out.”
Lauren’s lungs were collapsing as she was rushed to Grady. Cindy Garcia, Lauren’s mom, got a call at 12:35 p.m. from an MSL Atlanta human resource manager.
“The name didn’t sound familiar to me when he said who it was,” Cindy recalls. “But he asked me to sit down, wherever I was. He said: ‘Promise me you’ll sit down. This is about your daughter, Lauren. I heard gunshots from my office. I ran down there and saw Lauren being taken into the back of the ambulance, probably to Grady.’
“I knew then it was bad,” Cindy says. “I called my husband, Eddie, and told him to get home. Our pastor, who was visiting someone at a nearby hospital, beat us to Grady. It was a long time before they let us see her. She was asking for me, but they had to stabilize her first.
“We didn’t know the extent of the situation,” she adds. “Friends and family came to support us. There was a big group of friends throughout the night praying and waiting. Finally, I got to see her, and her first word was ‘pray.’
I did. Lauren said she was in a lot of pain, and I tried to comfort her. Not long after that, her doctor told us she’d never walk again.”
When Lauren was transferred to Shepherd Center, the focus shifted to returning Lauren to living as independently as possible.
Lauren says her rehabilitation at Shepherd was great. “The therapists are nice,” she adds. “I made friends with techs, nurses and therapists. They were all very encouraging. I knew when I left Shepherd, I was going to be one of a very few in a wheelchair. At Shepherd, it’s normal to be in a wheelchair, and there’s a sense of belonging because we all share something in common. It’s a comfortable place to be because you know you’re not alone in this struggle.”
Dr. Bowman, and Lauren’s occupational therapist, Ginger Perritt, have no doubt Lauren will adjust to her new normal and will thrive, both personally and professionally. They are certain of that because of the strong support Lauren has received from family and friends. And they are certain of it because of the positive attitude and work ethic Lauren displayed while at Shepherd.
Not all cases of paraplegia are the same, and what Lauren experienced when she was injured is perhaps among the worst scenarios.
“Most people who are injured with gunshots are more challenging cases than blunt trauma, like a fall or dive,” Dr. Bowman says. “The wound often causes more neurological damage and more pain afterward. The projectile is on fire, and it burns nerve tissue. You add the component of a spinal cord getting a shock wave and a thermal injury, and it’s something we anticipate might make her not progress as quickly.
“But she worked through that,” he adds. “That’s not to say she didn’t have pain, but she kept focused on getting better and becoming more independent. It is a bit surprising, and
I wouldn’t have guessed she’d come through it as well as she did.”
Perritt is convinced that Lauren has adjusted to her new life and is indeed well on her way to independent living.
“She tried her best every day and was so motivated,” Perritt recalls.
“She made the effort to get out and go on outings more than just about anyone I’ve seen, and that was huge. She went to football games, shopping for a wedding dress and back to the office where she worked. A lot of people wouldn’t be ready for those steps, but she was. She never acted like a victim either.
“Lauren can do pretty much everything that she needs to be able to do to live independently,” Perritt adds.
Lauren did have some extraordinary support during her rehabilitation. She knew she had a full-time job awaiting her in her chosen profession. She knew she had a family who was dedicated to doing whatever was needed and she had a boyfriend of five years who was committed to her.
In fact, Anel Camdzic thought Shepherd Center was a fine place to creatively propose marriage to Lauren.
What transpired might not have had a direct impact on Lauren’s recovery. But no one is discounting its value, either.
Here’s how Lauren recalls the magical evening:
“We had gone on a Shepherd outing to Jason’s Deli and had gotten back. A friend was visiting, and we were all talking, catching up. Then all of a sudden, at 8:30 p.m., my tech said I needed to get in bed, which is a bit of a procedure. It was a little earlier than usual, but I thought nothing of it.
“She said she was going to use the lift to be put me in the bed, which we’d done some, but not that often. But I was being really agreeable. So here I was in the Hoyer lift, up in a sling, and it pulls me all the way to the window. I look out and see a friend jumping up and down on top of the parking deck, acting like a fool. I’m like, ‘Why is he doing this and why am I watching?’
“My fiancé said: ‘You’re kind of missing the point. Keep looking, read the words (which were written in colored chalk).’ I didn’t see them at first. Then I did and started flipping out. I was flailing all over the place. I’m not really sure when I said yes. He got on his knee while I was in air, with my ring. Oh, and I said yes.”
Lauren’s parents were not in on the plans. But they are thrilled for their daughter.
“It was the first day I had gone home,” Cindy recalls. “It was Eddie’s birthday. We had gone home to take care of some business. Anel texted us right before it happened. We knew it was going to happen at some point, but when we got the text, we were in the middle of the Publix parking lot. We started crying and laughing at the same time.”
As Lauren transitioned from inpatient to outpatient care at Shepherd Center, her mom talked with awe at how thorough, compassionate and rigorous Lauren’s care was at Shepherd Center.
“It is hard to put into words what Shepherd Center is like,” she says. “It’s amazing. We had such a good feeling that this is where she was meant to be. You see so many good things here. Even some of the ways they pushed her, when I was hesitant about doing something with her, they’d do it. They know what they are doing.”
Lauren and Anel are planning to be married in June 2012, in Destin, Fla. Meanwhile, Lauren returned to work in mid-December 2011.
About Therapeutic Recreation
Researchers have found that involvement in therapeutic recreation activities provides many benefits – including increased physical fitness, self-confidence and social interaction – to people with disabilities.
Research shows that productive and positive use of recreation time for someone with a disability is not only desirable, it is imperative. Attitude and activity strongly affect a person’s health and wellbeing.
Also, involvement in positive and meaningful recreation activities can decrease medical complications and the need for further medical intervention and/ or hospitalization. And therapeutic recreation is one of the best ways to adjust to lifestyle changes caused by a disability.
Therapeutic recreation, such as the bowling outing in which former patient Lauren Garcia participated, is funded entirely by donor contributions to Shepherd Center.
To give, go to shepherd.org/foundation or call Dean Melcher in the Shepherd Center Foundation at 404-350-7306.
Written by Bill Sanders
Photography by Louie Favorite
Shepherd Center, located in Atlanta, Georgia, is a private, not-for-profit hospital specializing in medical treatment, research and rehabilitation for people with spinal cord injury, brain injury, multiple sclerosis, spine and chronic pain, and other neuromuscular conditions. Founded in 1975, Shepherd Center is ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the top 10 rehabilitation hospitals in the nation. In its more than four decades, Shepherd Center has grown from a six-bed rehabilitation unit to a world-renowned, 152-bed hospital that treats more than 935 inpatients, 541 day program patients and more than 7,300 outpatients each year.