Shooting paralyzed her body, not her spirit

Chris Green

Denial, sadness, anger and finally acceptance.

The emotions all are parts of the grieving process experienced by anyone after a life-jarring event such as the death of a loved one, divorce, or in the case of 19-year-old Jenna Stahl, sudden paralysis brought on by the hand of an unknown gunman.

Over the past seven weeks, Jenna has experienced a wide spectrum of feelings. But with the help of family and friends, she’s working hard on acceptance and carving out a new life for herself.

At the end of another challenging day of physical and occupational therapy at the Rehab Institute in Chicago, Jenna sat propped up late Wednesday night in her mechanical bed and sported a head and microphone set attached to a telephone.

The 2007 Guilford High School graduate spoke of how she was working two jobs and saving money to buy a car. Her day job was cleaning tanning beds at Sun Me Tan on Riverside Boulevard. Her night gig was waiting on customers as a “shot girl” at Cousins Bar and Grill on Perryville Road. “That was so much fun,” she said.

That was then. Now a host of nurses, family and friends wait on her.

“Everything has changed,” she said. “But everything happens for a reason.”

The scariest day

Jenna’s life-changing event occurred on Labor Day.

She was capping off the three-day holiday weekend by enjoying a late-night gathering and barbecue with her boyfriend, Garriett McVay, and several of their friends outside a residence in the 1700 block of Tacoma Avenue.

About 10:30 p.m., a man described as black, in his 20s, about 6-foot-1, 220 pounds with braided hair, and wearing blue jeans and a white tank top approached the group of young adults asking for someone they did not know.

The man was told the person he was looking for did not live there. The man refused to leave and eventually was told to “keep walking.”

“I basically saw him bothering my friends,” Jenna said. “I didn’t think anything was going to happen. If anything, they would just start fighting. The next thing I know he pulls a gun from his back pocket.”

Before the teens could scatter, the gunman fired into the group. One man was shot in the buttocks. Jenna was shot in the back near her right shoulder blade. The bullet ricochetted and severed her spinal cord leaving her motionless on the ground. The gunman fled with one of the teen’s pet dog chasing after him.

“I was conscious through the whole thing,” Jenna said. “That day was the scariest day of my life.”

Starting over

Jenna was released from Rockford Memorial Hospital and was transferred to the Chicago rehab center on Sept. 12, the two-year anniversary of Jenna and Garriett’s first date.

“When I got here, I kind of kept to myself,” she said. “I was really mad. I was really angry, going through everything that I’m going through and knowing the guy who did this to me is out there doing what ever he wants.”

It wasn’t long ago when Jenna was a fit young woman biking, jogging and walking around the block with her friends, Ashley and Melynda. Now, she said she’s working hard to master the basics such as sitting up and feeding herself.

“We don’t see any movement in my legs any time soon, so we’re working on my arms,” she said. “My goal is to get them as strong as possible, and hopefully get my hands back. None of my fingers can move, but I can use my wrists. I have really strong wrists. I can put them together to close my hands. That’s how I can pick up some stuff.”

Jenna’s parents, Dave and Paula Stahl; her sister, Becca; and boyfriend Garriett are playing major roles in bringing vitality to her new way of life.

“When I was in the hospital, I was there for like two weeks. Every single day, Garriett spent a night. I feel so lucky to have all this support. It has helped me so much through this ordeal. Without them, I probably wouldn’t be nearly as strong as I am right now.”

Nothing has changed

Paula Stahl has been at her daughter’s side on a daily basis staying at a nearby Ronald McDonald House. Becca, 18, and Garriett’s mother, Tanya, visit often. Dave Stahl and Garriett visit on the weekends giving Jenna a stroll in her wheelchair in downtown Chicago stopping at a nearby Baskin Robins for mint chocolate chip ice cream, Jenna’s favorite.

During the week, Dave works around his job as a FedEx Freight supervisor to remodel his home to accommodate a wheelchair. Carpeting is being tossed in favor of hardwood floors.

The bath tub will be ripped out in preparation for a wheelchair-accessible walk-in shower.

Jenna’s blue bedroom walls are soon to be pink. Her bed will be replaced with a hospital-style bed that can be raised and lowered. A remote-controlled hoist with a mesh harness soon will be attached to the ceiling and will hang over Jenna’s bed to assist Paula in lifting her daughter out of her bed and to her wheelchair.

Still on the family’s wish list are supplies and labor to build a ramp outside the front door of their northeast side home.

Jenna’s targeted release date from the Rehab Institute is Nov. 13.

“I can’t wait to see my family and friends,” she said.

Garrett said he and Jenna often talked of getting married and one day having a family of their own.

He said Thursday that nothing has changed.

“I tell her all time, we’re still living. We’re just living different.”

Chris Green can be reached at (815) 987-1241