Martha Childress embraces challenges after shooting (+ video)

The Greenville NewsMay 25, 2014 

— The little shop on tree-lined Main Street has a heavy wooden door.

And while it may be something of a minor annoyance to many people, for someone confined to a wheelchair, it can be a cumbersome obstacle, a barrier to independence.

"It's something that seems so easy to people, opening your own doors by yourself," says Martha Childress, pulling the door toward her while simultaneously trying to push her wheels.

"But some doors are pretty heavy," she says, as she squeezes through. "So it takes a little practice."

This is the new reality for the University of South Carolina freshman who was paralyzed by a stray bullet in Five Points this past October.

Opening doors, driving a car, shopping — all the things she did before, she must now learn to do in a wheelchair.

"It's been a big change," says the scrappy J.L. Mann High School graduate. "But I try to deal with it the best I can."

In the months since the shooting, Childress' progress has been nothing short of amazing, says Danielle Fitzmorris, a recreational therapist at Roger C. Peace Rehabilitation Hospital who is teaching her how to get out of her car safely, to pop a wheelie to get up a curb, and even to play tennis.

"She has a really great positive attitude and she's not scared to do anything," says Fitzmorris. "I'm going to miss her when she goes back to school."

'I just fell back'

Last Oct. 13, Childress, a fresh-faced 18-year-old with a dazzling smile, had been to a Hunter Hayes concert at the South Carolina State Fair with a friend. They decided to stop by the Pita Pit in Five Points, a popular hang-out for college students.

After running into some friends and having a bite, they walked to the Five Points fountain to get a cab back to her dorm. And as they stood there chatting about their evening and waiting, Childress suddenly crumpled to the sidewalk.

"I didn't really know what had happened," she recalls. "I heard kind of a bang or pop and I just fell back. I didn't feel anything. Just, 'Oh. Why did I fall?'

"And I couldn't get back up. And I looked at my friend and she had this look of fear and panic on her face. And I just knew something was wrong."

People rushed from all directions to help. Nursing students and volunteer firefighters who'd been nearby hurried to her side while they waited for EMS.

"Nobody would really tell me what was going on. It was chaos," Childress remembers. "Finally, when I had gotten to the ambulance, I was like, 'Please, tell me what happened.' And they told me I had gotten shot.

"And I just shut down. Because it's something that's very hard to believe."

Childress doesn't remember much after that. She was transported to the hospital and spent a week in intensive care. Then came another eight weeks at an Atlanta hospital which specializes in treating spinal cord injuries.

"Martha's injuries were very, very serious," says her mom, Pam Childress.

The bullet is still lodged in her spine. Doctors say removing it would be too dangerous.

A new life

So the bubbly young woman is learning how to make a new life as a paraplegic, and diving into it with all the determination she can muster.

"I've been working on strengthening myself and doing things for everyday life. Like today," she says, wheeling herself down Greenville's sun-dappled Main Street.

"We're going to practice accessibility because everybody loves to come downtown because Greenville is so beautiful," she says, her long, dark hair pulled back in a ponytail. "It's good to practice what's accessible and what's not around where I like to go."

Before the shooting, Childress and her friends enjoyed spending time downtown, browsing through the fashions and jewelry in the little shops that line Main Street.

She loved dressing up and going out to dinner, and savoring the biscuits at Tupelo Honey or a cup of gourmet ice cream at Spill the Beans. Strolling over the bridge at Falls Park. Just being part of the crowd.

She still enjoys all those things. Now it's in a wheelchair.

Along with opening the heavy doors and driving, recreational therapy helps patients learn new skills or perform functions they did before, but with an adaptive device or from a sitting position, says Fitzmorris.

"With Martha, first we went grocery shopping, learning how to push the cart, and get in and out of the freezer section, from a sitting position," she says. "Because she'll have to shop for herself and cook and all those things."

On her own

On this breezy spring morning — when downtown Greenville is teeming with people walking dogs, moms pushing strollers and delivery men unloading their trucks — parking is something of an obstacle.

"There are (handicapped) parking spaces, but not a lot of curb cut-outs near them and they're open to the road," Childress says. "So it was a bit of a challenge to find a place to park that was safe for me."

But she did it. Giving up is not in her DNA.

She's learning to swim and be safe in the water, is riding hand cycles, and is even playing tennis, a favorite sport, in a wheelchair.

Just last weekend, her mom says, she climbed a rock wall, went scuba diving in a pool, and even zip lined at an event sponsored by the Shepherd Center, the rehab hospital where she stayed after the shooting.

Before learning to drive using hand controls, Childress had to learn how to break down her wheelchair and put it in the car by herself, Fitzmorris says.

This day, she's working on accessibility issues, like navigating through bustling city streets full of perilous potholes and hilly terrain. And maneuvering her wheelchair up the steps into stores.

"We look at things like that that you kind of take for granted," Fitzmorris says. "You have to worry about safety and getting around. It's great for Martha to get this experience on her own. She wants to be independent."

In about two months, the feisty marketing major will return to college.

'Back to life'

"This put me about a semester and a half behind. But I'm not going to rush myself to catch up," she says. "Plenty of people graduate a semester behind. So if I do, it's not a big deal. I'm just trying to do it at my own pace and get used to being in college again."

She'll be joining friends in an accessible apartment off campus, which makes her family more comfortable about her return.

"She has a wonderful support system here and in Columbia," Pam Childress says. "We would not be sending her back if we didn't think she was prepared."

And Martha's going to school early to gauge campus accessibility.

"That's something I'm working with the staff at USC with," she says. "Going around campus to see what needs to be fixed, if there needs to be more curb cut-outs, more handicapped parking, more automatic doors. Anything like that that not only benefits myself but other students, too."

She rarely thinks about the accused shooter.

Michael Juan Smith, 21, was indicted on charges of possession of a stolen pistol and attempted murder, which could carry 30 years in prison upon a conviction, according to the Fifth Judicial Circuit Solicitor's Office. He is in the Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center awaiting trial.

In February, he pleaded guilty to federal charges of being a felon in possession of a firearm and ammunition, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office. He could face a maximum of 10 years, and sentencing is scheduled for June 20.

"It's something so negative and I try in my life to think about the positives," Childress says. "I think that's important."

Pam Childress says that the two of them decided early on that worrying about why it happened or who did it wasn't productive.

"We did not need to expend the energy, particularly in the early days," she says. "We chose just to focus on her recovery and moving forward with her life."

So in the meantime, Martha adjusts her white baseball cap and sets her sights on learning everything she can to be as independent as possible.

"I'm doing pretty well," she says, flashing that sunny smile. "I'm getting ready to go back to school. I'm getting back to life."

Marth Childress talks about the night she was shot and her recovery

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