Stabbed By A Stranger, A College Student’s Long Road Back

Annie Ropeik (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

Annie Ropeik sitting in Amory Park in Brookline, MA. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

By Annie Ropeik
Guest contributor

One morning, as I was walking to work, I was stabbed four times in the back and neck by a mentally ill stranger.

It was Aug. 4, 2010. I was twenty years old, a rising junior at Boston University, and I was a block away from my internship at NPR. I was not robbed; the attack was unprovoked. I was just unlucky.

I had stopped on a street corner to wait for the light when I felt someone pulling my hair. A woman — my attacker — had come up behind me. We struggled, and I stumbled and fell. I found myself lying on the street, on my back, with blood streaming from a wound in my neck.

The woman stood over me, holding a switchblade three or four inches long, her expression enraged but her eyes somehow vacant. I was sure I was about to die. But then she just dropped the knife and walked away. I crawled toward the sidewalk, screaming. It felt like forever before someone came to help me, though I think in reality it was only seconds before several passers-by gathered around me. One called 911 and held my hand; another called my mom; a few others put pressure on my wound to stem the bleeding.

“I can’t feel my left leg,” I said. Though my pain was intense, I could only feel it in little dulled-out patches, through a haze of shock. Still, I was acutely aware that I couldn’t move my leg. It was just gone. I didn’t know what was happening, and I was terrified.

We’re moving to Iowa

The pedestrian who called my mom had left a worst-nightmare voicemail: “Your daughter has been stabbed and they’re taking her to Howard University Hospital.”

Both my mom and my dad made it to the hospital around the same time my ambulance arrived; they ran lights and broke speed limits most of the way from our home in Silver Spring, Md., about 25 minutes away. The first thing I said to my mom was, “I shouldn’t have been late for work.” (I had planned to stay late that day, so I had caught the Metro about an hour later than usual.)

My mom replied, “We’re moving to Iowa.” It was half a joke — we’re good suburbanites who love the city — but the attack did shake some of our trust in D.C.

http://youtu.be/jCyKu76uwig

In the emergency room, a neurologist ordered me directly into an MRI, before the staff had even stopped my bleeding. What followed was a harrowing half-hour of loud clanging and claustrophobia. Despite a morphine shot, I was still in pain. I was slowly coming back to myself, and as I did, the pain grew.

I narrowly missed out on a blood transfusion. The doctors easily stitched up my five wounds: two in the center of my mid and upper back, a big one on my right hip, and a little diagonal above my collarbone that had punctured all the way back out my left shoulder. But the MRI revealed that the knife had nicked my spinal cord in the mid-back wound, severing the nerves that let me move my left leg and feel certain sensations on the right.

This new normal penetrates to every corner of your life.

That morning, I had been a happy, healthy, fully mobile college student with a profoundly normal life. I was a habitual speed-walker, I loved to bike around my neighborhood in the summer, and I’d always give up my seat on the bus. I was a scuba diver, and at school, I sang and danced with my a cappella group. But by mid-afternoon on that August day almost two years ago, I was a semi-paraplegic – for how long, I didn’t know.

What follows is the saga of my medical and emotional rehabilitation, still ongoing. Most people will never experience such a crazy journey in their lives. But this is not entirely a horror story. Mostly, it’s a story of how I adjusted to my “new normal,” a popular phrase in rehabilitation parlance.

It’s about how I tried to let this unexpected and dramatic shift in my reality become my regular life. This new normal, even for a relatively minimal injury like mine, penetrates to every corner of your life — physically and emotionally. You stop taking the subway and start driving. You think twice about walking to class in the snow, and you take a pass on pick-up kickball with your friends. You learn to think of yourself as handicapped, and you devise a canned explanation for your scars and your cane. And you learn that even from bad misfortunes, you can grow strong.

I graduated on time from B.U. in May. But while most of my classmates are spending this summer at their first jobs, I’m taking a little break to devote unlimited time to physical therapy — just another part of my new normal.

Something Is Alive In There

After my injury, I spent five weeks as an inpatient – first at a large Washington hospital and then at a rehabilitation facility. At first, I couldn’t even sit up long enough to sit in a wheelchair. I moved my left leg for the first time two or three days in, still bedridden in a hospital gown. One of my doctors held my knee up and told me to try to kick out, and somehow it just happened. It was a reflex sort of kick, spastic and uncontrolled, but something was alive in there, and it was a good sign.

Annie Ropeik skyping with friends from her hospital bed. (courtesy: Annie Ropeik)

Annie Ropeik skyping with friends from her hospital bed. (Courtesy: Annie Ropeik)

I have what is perhaps the best possible spinal cord injury. For one thing, my right leg has remained perfectly mobile, an indescribable asset in physical therapy. For the left, since it was not a clean cut, I have had to learn how to do old tricks with new muscles. Nerves regrow extremely slowly, but muscles can take shortcuts. Spurred by immense force of will and endless repetition, things wake back up slowly, and soon enough can be put together into processes like walking.

My precise affliction is called Brown-Séquard Syndrome. It’s what happens when you suffer a partial cut to the left side of the spine in the area where the nerves cross over, half going straight down and half switching to the right. The half that go to the right at the point where I was injured are the ones controlling peripheral sensations – pain and temperature. The half that continue down the left are the deeper ones that control movement. My right side initially felt like it was asleep, dull and deadened, but my left side felt like I had slept on it – like when you cut off circulation by accident and wake up thinking there’s someone else’s leg in your bed.

The rehabilitation world doesn’t like to put dates or final goals on things. All the doctors said was that I would probably walk unaided “in due time.” The check-in date for an injury like this is a year out – where you are then is probably about where you’ll be for a long time. I’ve found that to be only sort of true; that is, you never really finish recovering. There’s no precise day when you wake up and say, “I’m better. I’m exactly how I was before.”

That’s the other thing about starting a long and arduous rehabilitation process – coming to terms with the fact that it’s really happened to you, it’s you in this wheelchair and you with these new scars. I was knocked off the rails of my own life in the beginning, shocked at the discovery that bad things could just happen, and that you’re never really secure, because something can always happen in the blink of an eye that changes everything. Even just being stuck in the hospital for a month was a terrible hardship. I just wanted to go home, and I wanted to go back to school, and I wanted to be healthy, and normal. And I couldn’t.

“I feel like I’ll never be able to believe in God now,” I told my mother early on, from my hospital bed.

“Why do you say that?” she asked. She was raised fairly Christian, though our household has never been very religious.

“Because…why would this happen to me?” I asked. I can’t remember the rest of the conversation. I think we were both crying.

Pieces Of The Puzzle

It helped, of course, that I made steady progress almost from the get-go. I’m young and I was healthy before my injury, making me well-disposed to a strong recovery. That recovery has mostly been based on willing my left leg back into existence by exercising tirelessly, teaching my muscles to do old things with new nerves and relearning consciously the minutiae of physical processes that are normally unconscious.

Imagine the hundreds of tiny reflexes that go into something as small as wiggling your big toe, let alone something as big as walking. A healthy person is able to combine all these things without thinking, but I was learning from the ground up, remembering each component part manually and trying to compile them all into a functional action. For a few weeks, I had trouble even remembering to breathe during physical therapy.

Most of the time, I wouldn’t realize I could do something until I did it.

Though my muscles remembered in theory how to do the things I was trying to do, my brain was cut off from that memory. I was taught new pieces of the puzzle every day, but I struggled to recall the picture on the box. Most of the time, I wouldn’t realize I could do something until I did it.

I was discharged in early September 2010, a little over a month after being stabbed. I left the hospital on crutches, with a wheelchair and walker folded up in the trunk of our car, and went back to my house in Silver Spring. I wouldn’t be going back to school for the fall semester of my junior year. I kept hoping I might, right up until move-in weekend and even afterwards, feeling a little like I was missing the train back to Hogwarts. Instead, I spent that semester at home, taking three classes online, hanging out with my parents and my dog, and keeping a full schedule of outpatient physical therapy.

In October, as I was supporting myself between parallel bars in the main physical therapy gym, my therapist casually said: “When you feel ready, try walking without holding on.”

I was incredulous. I had not walked unsupported yet and I did not feel at all capable of doing so. But I steadied myself, lifted my hands to let them hover over the parallel bars and – walked, all by myself. A very rough approximation of walking, yes, but unsupported walking all the same. It was a major breakthrough, so major it was a shock. I felt silly, but I had to take a moment to collect myself.

Anxiety Seeps In

I went back to school the following January for spring semester of junior year. The night before I moved into the Brookline apartment I was planning to live in until May, I was hit by a sudden deep-seated anxiety about coming back to school. The prospect of the coming semester was like a physical weight on my chest, and I was suddenly panicking.

I was going back to my life, and I didn’t know if I was ready. I was angry at myself that I was anxious, and it caught me off-guard enough that I got worried about how I was feeling, too – I hadn’t realized this fear was waiting inside me. It felt like a relapse, after a semester of working slowly through my questions about how to come back from such a vast setback. Trying to shake it off only made it worse.

Annie donning a pair of crutches to get around at the Jon Stewart march on the Natl Mall October 2010 . (Courtesy: Annie Ropeik)

Annie donning a pair of crutches to get around at the Jon Stewart march on the Natl Mall, October 2010 . (Courtesy: Annie Ropeik)

I wanted to be excited, elated to be getting back to “real life,” but that was the problem: I wasn’t sure what constituted real life anymore. After five months living in an alternate reality, it felt like I was being asked to move on too soon, to insert this changed person I had become into a previous existence. My reality was about to become a very different one than I had known before. I was handicapped now, and moving back to Boston (where I had been perfectly healthy only seven months prior) made that much more real than it had been so far.

Being handicapped in the hospital and at home all semester was one thing. Being handicapped at school meant it was really happening, and that it was, to an extent, permanent.

But I missed school and my friends and any semblance of independence too much, in the end, to turn back.

Boston was in the throes of its worst winter in 40 years when I returned: endless lakes of slush and snowbanks three feet high on either side of every sidewalk. I wouldn’t be able to walk to campus from my apartment, meaning a high-maintenance commute on the T. Even walking to and from different classroom buildings would take more time, energy and planning than usual. I was going to have to be habitually late to most of my classes. I would have to shuffle at a snail’s pace through the snow to keep from slipping. I wore crampons on my shoes and installed a toothy metal ice-gripping attachment on the end of my cane, much to everyone’s amusement.

Carrying groceries or laundry up the stairs to my second-floor walk-up was out of the question (thank God for helpful roommates). I wouldn’t be able to walk to a party in Allston, and my alcohol tolerance was lowered by long abstinence and the medication I was on for nerve pain. (Technically I wasn’t supposed to be drinking at all – and the danger of stumbling or tripping had skyrocketed, including the risk that I’d fall in the snow on my no-temperature side and not think to care, which happened a couple of times). I wouldn’t be able to do choreography with my a cappella group or even stand as easily to sing at gigs. I had to wear oversized shoes to accommodate easily scrunched toes and to fit a huge, clunky plastic leg brace that went all the way up to the back of my knee, which I wore for longer journeys. Between that, my cane and my ugly pink scars, I didn’t have a lot of hope for romance that semester, either.

The Important Of Being Asleep

Then there was the pain. Up to this point, I had been extremely grateful that there wasn’t much pain associated with my recovery. Even physical therapy, while strenuous, was not often extremely painful in the way that physical therapy can be. I was, and still am, on Lyrica, a fibromyalgia drug used to treat nerve pain. Such pain is a common side effect of spinal cord injuries, typically decreasing in intensity and anatomical span over time. I’ve only ever had it in a small area on my torso — a bright, sharp, shooting pain beneath the skin, coming in bursts and worsened by fatigue, dehydration, stress or uncomfortable position.

What I didn’t know when I headed back to school is that proper sleep and rest are a huge part of what keeps nerve pain under control. As a sophomore during the semester before my injury, I was editor of B.U.’s student paper, a 60-hour-per-week commitment that typically ran from 5 p.m. until 6 a.m. on school nights. I had thought I’d just resume my collegiate sleep schedule.

But within a few weeks, I was stricken unexpectedly by worse and more constant nerve pain than I had yet felt. At its most intense, it kept me doubled over, clutching uselessly at it, and it nagged at me in between spikes. I stayed in bed many days, desperately frustrated, trying to lie as still as possible so as not to trigger it.

I began hanging everything that went wrong in my life on my injury.

So it turned out that I could no longer really pull all-nighters or stay out late like my fellow students. It was a blow to my procrastinatory habits and to my ability to get back into some semblance of social normalcy. I was already missing a lot of class because of weather and fatigue (and I was taking an overload that semester to make up for lost time, which was foolish in hindsight.) Now I was missing it because of pain, too, even as a redoubled barrage of medications started to take effect.

This is when things got even worse: I began hanging everything that went wrong in my life on my injury. It became a game of “Would this not be happening to me if I hadn’t gotten stabbed?” Would I have flaked out on this friend’s birthday party, would I have turned this paper in a week late, would I have skipped this a cappella gig? And the answer, no matter the reality, would always be yes.

This was a dangerous and irrational mindset, and it was making me depressed. Fortunately, my friends, my parents and my rehab therapists (physical and psychological) helped me through this dark period, and a lot of stress-sleeping and stress-Interneting and some very charitable professors helped, too.

Annie Ropeik at her graduation ceremony at Boston University in 2012. (Courtesy: Annie Ropeik)

Annie Ropeik at her graduation ceremony at Boston University in 2012. (Courtesy: Annie Ropeik)

Then, on the first warm day after that interminable winter, I put on a sundress and sandals (even though they were bad for my newly flat left foot) and walked four blocks from my apartment to Amory Park to meet some friends. It was about the longest distance I thought I could comfortably walk – but it was surprisingly easy. The sun was shining, and I realized I had gotten through the winter, that I was stronger than I had been in January, and that there were some things my injury could not, in fact, touch. I let myself think, finally, that maybe this could be okay. Maybe I could be okay.

The Intern Who Lived

I went back to NPR that summer to be one of two interns at All Things Considered. I was known, generally, as “the intern who lived.” I’ll take a moment here to address the fallout from the actual attack. But you should know that for me, this has never been the worst part. It’s always been eclipsed by the shock and hardship of the injury it caused, my subsequent recovery and the changes I’ve had to make.

My attacker, Melodie Brevard, was a woman only a few years older than myself, bipolar and schizophrenic and off her medication. She had priors and should have been better cared for by the city and by her family. But she wasn’t. And I happened to cross her path at the wrong moment.

I had to give grand jury testimony, recounting what led up to the attack, making clear that I had never encountered this woman before this moment, explaining the event itself and what the outlook is for my recovery. Both the prosecutor and my attacker’s defense lawyer agreed to settle out of court on an insanity plea. As far as I know, she’s now at St. Elizabeths, a psychiatric hospital in Washington.

People often ask me whether I’m angry at her, whether I blame her, whether I forgive her.

People often ask me whether I’m angry at her, whether I blame her, whether I forgive her. I don’t think it was her fault, and strange as it may sound to say, I don’t feel that she did what she did to hurt me personally. I could have been anyone, and in a way, so could she. It’s that truly random nature of the attack that has made it easier to come to grips with: It was just unlucky coincidence, revealing no darker, evil-intentioned side of humanity (as it would have had there been, say, robbery or rape involved).

In the weeks following my attack, my rehab hospital psychologist was on the lookout for signs of PTSD, but I didn’t display many – no nightmares, no fear of going out in public. The first time I went back to the scene of the crime was hard because it brought on the memory, but I have never been afraid. Now I walk through it all the time, and it gives me pause, but I can do it.

I sometimes replay the incident in my mind – hardly ever in full, and I’m able to snap out of it fairly easily – when triggered by a twinge in a scar, or seeing the name of the band I was listening to on my iPod at the time, or just thinking of it too hard for a little too long. It can be uncomfortable, but I’m able to fight it, and this happens less and less as time goes by.

I spent some time rationalizing, playing a game of what if. If I hadn’t been late to work that morning, if I hadn’t stopped at Starbucks after getting off the Metro, if I had jaywalked instead of waiting for the light to change on the corner where it happened. It’s a useless exercise, and one that I recognized inside of a week after the attack as far more of a hindrance than a help.

Things would have just been different — rather than uniformly better – if I hadn’t been injured.

Late in the fall of senior year, I caught myself thinking for the first time that things would have just been different — rather than uniformly better – if I hadn’t been injured. I could see how the attack had changed my path without thinking that it had sent that path on a turn for the worse. For example, I would have ended up going abroad with one group of friends last fall and so wouldn’t have become closer with the other group who stayed on campus. It was a revelation: the first time I really felt as though my injury was a part of my life as a whole, not a sidebar. Rather than being something that took place while my reality was on pause, it was a part of the continuous picture.

After hitting a kind of bottom that spring of junior year, I’ve remained pretty securely on the mend. I’m walking without my cane as often as not now, and feeling reliably healthy – even just able. All of senior year, I did physical therapy at Boston Medical Center. In March, for the first time in a year and a half, I ran.

Technically it was sort of haphazard jogging, aided by my physical therapists and the support of a harness over a treadmill, but still – it was a huge leap forward.  I can still remember the weeks when I didn’t even know if I would ever walk again. The day I first ran was one of the best days of my life. Now I jog on the treadmill almost every week, and it looks and feels better every time.

My PT this summer is designed to improve my gait, speed and stamina. Since May, I’ve spent three or four days a week walking on the treadmill and doing other exercises with the help of my therapists. Each day is akin to a brisk bout on an elliptical plus a healthy program of cardio, muscle and core training (sit-ups, planks, etc.). My legs are wobbly by the end of the week, and I always break a sweat.

Since I’ve checked some running and jumping off the list of accomplishments, our new goal is biking – one of the very few things I did before my injury that I can no longer do (scuba diving turned out to be easily adaptable to one leg). I’m going to keep doing therapy here as long as I’m in the city, until I find a job for the fall. My therapists are very optimistic about my progress.

Will I ever fully recover? Walk without a limp, run and bike like I used to?

Will I ever fully recover? Walk without a limp, run and bike like I used to? Perhaps not 100%, but 95% could be a good estimate. My walk looks more normal with each passing day, and I’m getting out what I’m willing to put in at this point – that is to say, at this juncture, quite a lot. As for the painkillers, that’s a more open question. Nerve pain can be long term, but my doctors don’t want me to be on the painkillers forever. Other options, such as periodic nerve-freezing procedures, are possibilities for the future.

I still have a lot of questions about what happened to me.  But most are about how to frame my attack in the context of my life: Should I be grateful that this happened? Is it better to have a terrible experience if you discover good things about yourself as a result? Or to never have the bad happen, and so never gain that self-knowledge? In the past two years, I have discovered that I can be stronger and more resilient, physically and emotionally, than I ever would have known I could be. Even so, I still don’t feel able to say that it’s made my life wholly better. I dislike the thought that I should be thankful for the fact that I was stabbed, and I’m not. I am, though, thankful for how I’ve bounced back.

Mostly I’ve learned that you have to make the best of it. I’ve been scared and uncertain, bottomed out a lot of the time. But there has never been a moment, with the possible exception of the first few days after the attack, when I’ve felt like I couldn’t get through. For me, that was never a choice. After having an experience like this, I think you come to a point where you understand that there is no way you can just roll over and die. You just have to know that what happened, happened, and it’s in the past. All you can do is try to move forward.

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