ATLANTA, GA (WIS) - On Oct. 13, 2013, 18-year-old Martha Childress' life changed forever.
As she awaited a taxi to take her back to her dorm room on the campus of the University of South Carolina, Childress was struck by a stray bullet fired from a gun by a man she had never even met.
The bullet hit Childress in the ribcage and she immediately collapsed to the ground. She says she remembers everything that happened in the moments after she was hit.
"I didn't really know I was shot at first. I just knew I heard a loud bang and I fell and didn't really know what was going on and I couldn't feel my legs," said Childress. "I looked over to my best friend, who was standing next to me, and I just told her, 'I can't feel my legs. I can't move.'"
Childress says chaos surrounded her in those desperate moments where she didn't exactly know the extent of her injuries. She repeatedly asked anyone in the area what happened and she finally received the word as her lungs began to fill with blood.
"Then finally, I was like, 'Please tell me what's going on,' and they told me I was shot," said Childress. "I just went quiet. I had no idea, and then all these crazy questions went through my mind like, 'Why would someone do this to me, what happened, why did I deserve this?'"
She was transported to Palmetto Health Richland Hospital in critical condition where doctors finally told her she was paralyzed. It was a fact Childress said she already knew.
"I had the worst idea in my mind, I knew, though, I was. It just confirmed what I already knew," said Childress. "It was hard."
After almost a week in intensive care, Childress was moved to the Shepherd Center in Atlanta to begin the long rehabilitation process. It was a transition she was not prepared for, she said.
"Coming here was a big adjustment," said Childress. "I wasn't ready for what I was about to get into. It's very demanding and grueling here. It's hard to learn these things because you start all over.
Childress said the rehab process brought out plenty of anger and frustration about her plight, but she pressed on.
"I was angry at myself, I was angry at [suspect Michael Juan Smith], I was angry at the world," said Childress. "And you get to the depression and the sadness of it all. You're just sad, and you don't want to see anyone at all. After a while, I was just sick of being tired. I was sick of being tired and mad and just all of it. I didn't want to be sad anymore, so I decided to just try and get along with my life because I didn't want to be a victim anymore.
"The moment I become a victim, he wins. That's the thought that went through my mind, so I didn't want to be a victim anymore."
At the recovery center, Childress has been involved in an extensive process to regain flexibility and movement. She has to relearn how to live life and even how to do the most basic of things. It's been hard work, she says.
"It's been extremely painful," said Childress. I still deal with the pain, too. You first come here and you have to use parts of your sides that you've never used before, your arms, your back because they become your legs, your upper body works for your lower body as well, my arms work for my legs, work as my legs now too. So they're working overtime, my arms are tired my back will hurt, hips will hurt, all that stuff, but it does get better."
Even going out into the real world is a new adjustment.
"The first outing I went on, it was scary. It was very weird to be out in the real world. With the people here at the Shepherd's Center, you feel very safe. Everyone is so kind and is so accepting about everyone here and then you got into the real world and not all people are like that. You have to get used to that. People stare. People are going to stare. It's hard to get used to that at first, but the more and more you go out, the more comfortable and confident you are in yourself, it just doesn't matter anymore." said Childress.
Childress credits her support system of family and friends for giving her the strength to continue rehab. Her friends and her mother, especially, she says, have been a tremendous help.
"I'm so grateful," said Childress. "They've been the greatest support system I could ask for."
"[My mother] is here with me every day and she's having to learn things, too. This is a new thing for her, too, and she's learning with me, and we're learning the same things, and so we're going through it together. So it's nice to have someone here who you're extremely comfortable with that knows what you're going through."
That support system has been the bedrock of her recovery as she found the strength to continue to live with her disability and learn how to do things she never thought she'd be able to do.
"When you come here first, you see people who are around being able to do things and you're like, 'I can't do that.' You can't, but you go and try it and I was really surprised I could do things. I can do different types of transfers. I can use depression transfers, using my body to move from one place to another and nothing else. And so when I first saw people doing stuff like that, I was like, 'I can't do that, I'll never be able to do that,' and I can do it now. So, you progress a lot."
For the most part, Childress seems to want to return to her normal life of being a college student.
"I'm Martha," said Childress. "I'm not the girl that was in Five Points, I'm not the face of reform, or all this, I'm Martha. That's all I want to be and all I can try to be."
And as for her recovery, she says she's finally progressing and getting stronger as she plans to go home next week to take online classes in preparation to return to USC next fall. She says her drive has been the biggest factor in getting her back home in time for Christmas.
"I'm willing to do anything to get better, to work on my therapy. I'll work through pain, I'll do it. I just want to home, and I have that drive because I want to be the best version of myself I can be," said Childress.
In the meantime, Childress will continue in her recovery efforts, but she won't be caught looking in the past.
"I can't sit here and think, 'Why did this happen to me, what did I do to deserve this,' because all it does is hold me back and I've got to move forward and I don't know why it happened to me, but there is a reason and I might not see it yet, and I might not see it for a while, but there is a reason this happened to me.
"I could have died, easily. I'm lucky to be alive, and I'm lucky to be in this chair. I could be dead and I couldn't be in this chair. I'm lucky because I have people who love me and people who are willing to help me, so I just feel really lucky."
Martha plans to be home for Christmas and continue in her recovery. As her inpatient rehab ends at the Shepherd Center, Martha Childress is interested in one thing, getting back to being an 18 year old.
"Normalcy, that's what it's all about," she said.
Her graduation of sorts, an end to long days of building new muscles to help her body compensate - and classes teaching her about some of the challenges in caring for her new condition, like shifting her weight every 30 minutes.
"You won't have any sensation or movement and so if you don't have sensation, how do you protect yourself from getting burned?" said Dr. Anna Elmers with the Shepherd Center.
She's been through peer support programs, talking to mentors who've been there.
"It just gives me hope to see I can have a life," said Childress. "They're married, have kids, they have careers, they're happy and so it's nice to see I can do that with my life if I want to and it's up to me."
But an even more important program especially for a teenagers, Recreation Therapy.
"Outings here are nice because it gives you some sense of what it's going to be like in the real world," she said.
"It's completely donor-funded because it's not supported by insurance, so we consider it one of our value-added services," said Dr. Elmers.
A must, according to the Center's founder, James Shepherd.
"Thought that was one of the most important things to getting people back to life, and that's the department that will take them out to eat, show them how to navigate through a grocery store, how to get things they can't reach, how to get to the airport and navigate through the airport," said Dr. Elmers
Even taking Childress to a college campus making her familiar with how to navigate curbs, ramps, doors, and anything else she might encounter on the USC campus when she returns in August or before, visiting friends. Even showing patients how to do the simple things that put a smile on their faces.
"How to go scuba diving again, how to go hunting, you name it, they do it," said Dr. Elmers.
The list to put a smile on Childress' face this holiday? Not long at all, starting with a few Christmas movies.
"Watch it with my friends, drink hot chocolate, and see Christmas lights, just be a teenager," she said.
Childress said she wants to help the shepherd center. There are patients who have needs not met by insurance, and they may need specialized equipment. She wants to keep that foundation that's helped meet her needs, and help others by donations for whatever they might need.