Dr. Amanda Lyons was playing kickball in a Fishtown playground when she was shot in the back and her life was forever changed. Here, she shares her physical and emotional recovery journey.
I don’t know the person who shot me. They shot at another person on the playground on May 19, 2021. The police told me they think this person came back to the playground where I was playing kickball with my friend that day to retaliate against someone else. They were there but that person and I were the ones who wound up getting shot.
I’ll never forget that moment. My friends and I were sitting around after our game on benches. I had heard gunshots before, living in Fishtown, but this was the closest I had ever been. I was struck in the back and fell backward. Nothing hurt at first. It’s hard to even explain, but there was nothing. I felt the bullet. I started having trouble breathing (I later found out it had hit my diaphragm), and I was bleeding out. I also couldn’t feel or move my legs.
How Quickly Life Can Change
As an occupational therapist, I have an understanding of spinal cord injuries, so I knew the bullet hit my spine. I screamed for my friends to help me. They are all in health care in some capacity, so they all had some idea of what to do. I had one friend with her arm around me trying to hold the wound with a T-shirt so I wouldn’t lose too much blood, another friend keeping me talking and helping me control my breaths and nerves, and another explaining to me what was happening, that the cops had been called and an ambulance was on its way. Looking back, I have such appreciation for their help. I’m very lucky.
My husband Ben wasn’t there when I got shot. After the game, he went back to our home, just four blocks away, to use the bathroom. I remember I thought to myself I should go home with Ben but then decided to just stay and hang out for a bit. One of my friends called him and he rushed back to the playground.
When the ambulance arrived, he was able to ride with me.
I never lost consciousness at any point, and something I can remember so vividly is how much I screamed on that ambulance ride, to the driver, the EMTs, my husband, to help me. That’s when the pain started intensifying. I wanted anything to help with the pain.
I arrived at Temple University Hospital and was taken directly into the operating room. I remember the rush of people and everything was white and sterile looking. I don’t even remember if the walls were actually white but everything was just so bright. A woman in full scrubs came over to me to explain who she was, the surgeon, and explained what they were going to do and how they were going to help with the pain I was in. In the next moment, I was put under. They repaired my organs during that surgery and removed my spleen.
When I woke up, I had a breathing tube down my throat so I couldn’t talk. My husband was there beside me and I yanked on his hand to let him know I was awake, my eyes wide trying to communicate. They took out the tube immediately so I could speak with him.
I underwent surgery three days later for a spinal fusion around the T12 L1 area of my spine. I remember feeling so hopeful those days that I’d regain feeling in my legs. After the surgery, the level of my pain was a lot better because my back was finally stabilized. But nothing changed in terms of my paralysis. I felt nothing in my legs or my feet and my hope dwindled.
The Weight of Reality and Recovery
I was discharged from Temple to Magee Rehab for eight weeks and received intensive inpatient rehab. I was discharged home and immediately started Magee’s outpatient day rehab program at the Riverfront location. I worked with a physical therapist and occupational therapist daily there, spoke with a neuropsychologist, and participated in art therapy, music therapy and group activities and exercises. The group work helped me with my feelings of loneliness.
Everyone there was a gunshot victim like me or had a stroke. We could talk and relate with each other. However, it was also here that sadness and depression swept over me, as well as anger. I started to realize what I was able to do and not able to do. This wasn’t a broken leg that would heal. This was something I have to live with forever.
Video by Alexandra Hackett
I understand that people have some sort of knowledge that living with a spinal cord injury is difficult, but I cannot begin to tell you how difficult it actually is. It’s harder than you can even fathom. I could tell you about my day-to-day routine, how I manage to do self-care independently—like getting dressed, making breakfast and taking a shower—but it’s the emotion behind waking up every morning and re-remembering I cannot use my legs. I tackle it every morning. I need to calm myself down and sit in meditation to bring myself back.
It’s the difficulty in just touching my foot or my leg. When I first started learning how to dress myself with my occupational therapist, we were working on how to manually move my legs and feet. Up until this point, I had nurses helping me to get dressed; now, I had to touch my own legs and feet and experience the sensation of not feeling them. The emotion that caused me is something no one can understand. It puts you in deep. I cry every day.
I wish people understood that just because I’m home, have figured out how to even return to work and have worked to be so independent, despite my injury, it doesn’t mean my recovery is over and everything is fine.
There isn’t anything someone can send me or a card that’s going to take the pain away. The biggest source of support my husband and family can provide is just holding my hand or hugging me. Just that touch is powerful. They don’t need to say anything. There isn’t anything to say, and sometimes all I need is for someone to listen to me when I’m upset without saying anything back.
No one can tell me if I’ll ever regain sensation in my legs and feet. I understand spinal cord injuries and know this. All I can do is show up and take one day at a time.
Dr. Amanda Lyons is an assistant professor of occupational therapy at Jefferson.