Anna Orso and Jessica Griffin
The Philadelphia Inquirer
WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) This is the story of Amanda Lyons whose life was turned upside down after she was shot in a North Philadelphia park.
Amanda Lyons had just finished a kickball game in a North Philadelphia park when gunshots flew.
She fell to the ground, hit in the back by a stray bullet, and was taking in breaths that grew increasingly painful. The 36-year-old was motionless from the waist down while her teammates, some of whom work in the medical field, tended to her until paramedics arrived.
“I can’t feel my legs,” Lyons said.
It has been seven months since that shooting just after 9 p.m. on May 19, when a gunman opened fire in Hancock Playground, hitting a 16-year-old boy in the shoulder and striking Lyons in the back. No one has been arrested.
The split second left Lyons paralyzed with a severed spinal cord and relegated her to a wheelchair indefinitely, forcing her to adapt to a life that looks completely different from the one she had planned. An occupational therapist by trade, Lyons is now the type of patient she used to treat: a gunshot victim who must learn new techniques to perform basic tasks.
Her experience in medicine also means she is acutely aware that she was inches from an outcome worse than paralysis. Just after Lyons awoke in the hospital, she video-chatted with her mother. The first thing she said was: “Mommy, I could have died.”
“I’m still mourning the loss of my old self,” she said. “I’m still in some denial about having to be in a chair, and I still wake up and am like, is this nightmare over? Was this all a nightmare?”
That “old self” was athletic, bubbly, and fearless. Lyons is a Jersey native with a bit of a no-nonsense temperament, and was that person at every party who always had a smile stretched ear to ear. Relentless optimism is a part of herself she’s tried to harness now, even through unimaginable pain.
Still, the sheer randomness of the gunfire knocked Lyons’— —life off its axis and traumatized her, her friends, and her family. It came amid a spike in shootings in the city, a surge that exploded in the spring of 2020 and has left thousands of people in Philadelphia with life-altering injuries.
And she’s one of many in Philadelphia hit this year by an errant bullet, a group that also includes a 13-year-old girl shot while riding in a car, a Drexel student struck while watching fireworks in July, and a 66-year-old man killed while driving by his alma mater.
That context has not been lost on Lyons, who has made gun violence prevention her raison d’être, calling for stronger gun safety laws from her hospital bed and appearing this month at a violence prevention event alongside Gov. Tom Wolf. She frequently uses her social media platform to fund-raise for Everytown for Gun Safety, one of the country’s most prominent gun control groups.
She tries to share the raw truth with her followers, taking them along through months of rehabilitation that included everything from physical therapists using electrical currents to stimulate the nerves in her legs, to art therapy sessions where she painted a mermaid onto a piece of wheelchair equipment. She’s posted photos of the massive scar on her stomach from the surgery to evaluate what was damaged inside her body after the shooting, one of dozens of procedures.
This fall, she finally had a large fragment of the bullet removed from her back.
But it is not possible to show the breadth of the impact — not the therapy to deal with the depression and anxiety, or the medication she must take four times a day to help the nerve pain.
She can’t capture the conversations with her husband, Ben, about how to avoid dwelling on the worst “what ifs,” or how he can deal with the guilt he feels for not being there — for leaving the park to run home for just a few minutes, then sprinting back to find his wife shot.
And hard as Lyons may try, it’s difficult to chronicle the span of daily activities forever changed by becoming a paraplegic. There is no more going to the Firefly music festival without having to lie down in pain in an RV, or hearing fireworks over Labor Day weekend without experiencing a panic attack.
There are no more morning runs, no standing at the bar with friends, no easy trip in an Uber to go out to eat. She feels intense self-consciousness when she thinks about riding the bus, worried about getting the wheelchair on and concerned other riders will pity her.
“I try not to draw attention to my chair. I don’t want people looking at it,” she said. “I want to feel like you. I want to feel like everybody else. And it just is a reminder that I’m not walking.
Some of her anxiety, she said, could be stemmed if police solved the crime. Philadelphia Police Chief Inspector Frank Vanore said investigators identified a suspect and are “working with some other evidence” but have not definitively connected the person to the errant gunfire.
Detectives speak regularly with Lyons’ mother, Susan Prima, who travels to Philadelphia from New Jersey a few times a month to take her youngest daughter to doctor’s appointments. Sometimes she arrives at the new apartment Lyons moved into — because it’s wheelchair accessible — and when she sees her daughter come out of the bedroom in a wheelchair, all she can think is “no.”
“My heart is broken,” Prima said. “I’m better than I was May 19th. But my heart will always be broken. It will never be the same.”
Lyons knows her family is changed, and that her friends, some of whom watched her get shot, have experienced layers of trauma different from her own. She tries to put on a brave front and smile as much as she can, flashing what her mother calls “the deepest dimples you will ever see.”
In the quieter moments, the facade crumbles. For the first few months, Lyons broke down in tears every time a friend or family member left the apartment. She said her husband is the only one who has really seen through the strong exterior to the agony and depression.
Together, they have committed to taking on the future in small increments — it’s easier to think about the day-to-day, or week-to-week, than face the overwhelming notion of what life will be like by the time she’s 40, or 60, or 80.
So they find wins where they can. Sometimes that means going out to a brewery or making it through an entire Eagles game without having to leave feeling anguished. Sometimes it just means getting out of bed.
This fall, Lyons returned to work, teaching a slate of occupational therapy classes at Thomas Jefferson University.
And in early October, she sat on a blanket in Fairmount Park all day and watched her old kickball team, the Bayside Ballers, play together again for the first time since the shooting. Lyons’ family came, and some sipped on a beer called “Angry Amanda,” named after Lyons and brewed at a bar near Hancock Playground.
Several of her friends spouted off statistics about gun violence from Everytown’s website that they’ve committed to memory, like that the group’s research shows 58% of American adults, or someone they care for, have experienced gun violence.
An acquaintance asked Lyons about her prognosis without saying what so many have wondered: Will she walk again? She tells them that she has some sensation in her legs, a sign of progress, and that she knows several months into a spinal cord injury is nothing in the grand scheme of how long they can take to heal.
“You never know what could happen,” she said.
As the sun started to set, Lyons had to lie down on the grass and close her eyes, overwhelmed by the people, noise, and pain.
But it was the longest amount of time she’d been away from a couch in months. And so, like the Bayside Ballers who prevailed in the tournament, Lyons took the win.
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