physical therapy


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.

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. Continue reading