Losing your ability to walk is hard to accept – especially when it’s taken away by a bullet intended for someone else.
Seventeen-year-old Ashley Kern tries hard not to let it get her down. The Cheektowaga teenager says she fights every day to regain her ability to walk and reclaim the active life she once lived.
Progress is measured in flickers of voluntary muscle movement that she says give her hope.
But the circumstances of how she became paralyzed beneath her chest when leaving a house party near Canisius College on a late Saturday night in March often cause her to question herself.
“It’s a lot of what ifs. What if I didn’t go? What if I got to the ground instead of running when I heard the gunshots? You kind of play it back in your mind of what you should have done and what you didn’t do,” Ashley said.
She and her twin sister, Alexandria, and several friends had gone to the party after learning of it from a social media post. The way it read, she said, they thought it was sponsored by Canisius College students. When they arrived and realized it was not, they decided to leave.
Ashley barely made it down the front steps of the Glendale Place home when bullets started flying. One of them ripped into her torso and struck bones in her spine and collapsed her right lung.
When she regained consciousness, she was sprawled half on the front lawn and half on the sidewalk.
“It was really scary. It felt like a dream, like when something really terrible happens. I was trying to wake up, but I realized I was awake.”
Police say she was an innocent victim. The Kern family says detectives have told them the shooter was aiming for someone else who happened to be leaving the party at the same time. That individual also was wounded, but within a week was released from the hospital.
Ashley spent months at Erie County Medical Center and an inpatient rehabilitative facility. She now travels to Mount Laurel, N.J., every week for three days of treatment at Project Walk, a program she connected with after she was discharged from Kessler Institute of Rehabilitation in West Orange, N.J.
And just last week, Ashley was able to make her legs move ever so slightly.
“We were absolutely amazed. People at Project Walk were crying. She was lying on a mat table and they lifted up her legs and she was able to push back down,” said Chris Kern, Ashley’s father.
Chris Kern, a salesman, and his wife Jill, an office worker at Wegmans, say they are both grateful to have jobs that provide them with flexibility to drive their daughter to New Jersey on Tuesdays, stay with her, and return home on Thursdays.
But for Ashley’s progress to continue while she is at home, her family wants to provide a more advanced home therapy device to assist in retraining her body. They also say that the trips to New Jersey will be limited during the winter months. The RT600 Functional Electrical Stimulation unit cost $72,000 and is not covered by insurance because it is considered experimental, according to Chris Kern, who sells medical equipment for a living.
The device has a motorized harness that raises the patient to a standing position and the feet are placed into slots on gliding tracks. Electrodes attached to the leg muscles produce involuntary movement that stimulate walking. The machine measures how much effort the individual is contributing and allows for increased output by the patient when progress is detected.
To help purchase the device, a fundraiser is set for Sunday.
Ashley is eager to take her therapy to the next step, but she is also looking forward to a chance to socialize with those who attend the fundraiser, explaining that she has not gotten out much since she became paralyzed.
“I’m going to tell people what I’ve been doing and how I have been doing with my progress.”
She also wants to share how her experience has increased her perspective on life.
“I have a really good shot of walking again compared to a lot of other people with spinal cord injuries. Some people have a 1 percent chance or no chance at all of walking,” she said.
A former part-time cashier at the Wegmans on Dick Road in Depew and member of the supermarket chain’s softball league, she said that doctors have increased her percentages of walking again from 50-50 to 60 to 70 percent.
“The good part of all this is that I have met all these new people at the therapy centers and I’ve seen how much my family and community really care. I don’t take anything for granted.”
She also managed to graduate on time in June from Maryvale High School after successfully completing online courses, and she looks forward to one day becoming a nurse.
“I was always drawn to the nursing field and helping people in their hard times,” she said, adding that her close contact with the medical community since she was shot has given her a deeper appreciation of what is required to be a nurse.
And yet there are moments when it is still difficult to accept her situation, she says.
She knows the shooter is still out there “walking around,” and she wonders about how unfair life can be.
“It is kind of a tough thing to take in when you are really an innocent bystander,” she said, unable to imagine what would provoke someone to shoot another person.
Jill and Chris Kern say they do everything they can to keep up her spirits.
“Ashley realized they didn’t have any business being at this party. They’re all A students. They had never been in the city before and they just screwed up. Ashley beats herself up about this. She says, ‘Dad, I’d never done anything like that before and why did this have to happen,’” Chris Kern said.
But when Ashley is asked when she expects to walk again, she answers without hesitation:
“As soon as possible. I’m trying everything I can.”
The fundraiser is from 2 to 8 p.m. Sunday in the Harvey D. Morin VFW Post, 965 Center Road, West Seneca. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased at the door or by going to her Facebook page, Team Ashley Kern, where updates on her progress are posted. Donations can also be made at her GoFundMe page, https://www.gofundme.com/223ru5p4.