The boys thought the .22 rifle was unloaded. They thought it was funny, even as the son's fourteen-year-old friend playfully trained the gun on Hinton Leichtle where she sat on a high-backed bar stool in the kitchen. She remembers all but maybe thirty seconds of what happened next: He pulled the trigger. A single bullet pierced the back of her neck. It mushroomed into about fifty flecks of metal, one of which burst through the left side of her neck and hit the wall. Another narrowly missed her jugular vein. Her head flopped back as if she were looking at the ceiling.

"My body was instantly paralyzed," Hinton Leichtle says. "There was no pain because the bullet was so fast and severed my spinal cord so quickly." The boys ran to her.

Whenever Hinton Leichtle tells this story, she pauses to explain that nothing the boys did that day was malicious or planned. The teasing was innocent, the shooting an accident. The son of the family "never intended for those words to manifest into an action," she says, "but I think there's a really great lesson in how powerful our words can be."

At nine, Hinton Leichtle didn't know the meaning of the word "paralyzed." She knew she was shot and that she couldn't move, and she asked the boys to carry her to the couch. Mimicking something he'd learned in first-aid class, the son fetched an ice cube. Starting at Hinton Leichtle's feet, he traced her body with the ice, asking if she could feel it. "It was almost like he and I were on this mission together," she says. "He was hoping that every time he placed it somewhere, my answer was going to be yes." It wasn't — not until he reached her cheek.

Hinton Leichtle was airlifted to Omaha and spent three weeks at a children's hospital. From there, she was transferred to a rehab hospital, where she learned how to use a wheelchair and did physical therapy. The therapists stretched her immobile legs and helped her retrain the muscles in her arms that still worked. "Progression was super, super slow," she says. "What the insurance expected, I think, was for me to walk again." When that didn't happen, the insurance company decided she'd plateaued and stopped paying for the therapy.

"At nine years old, it was already determined by the medical model...that movement doesn't happen because you're paralyzed, but it also doesn't happen because you have to pay to move," she says. "That's a weird concept: The only way I get to move daily is if I pay for it."

But her insurance didn't hesitate to pay for the medications doctors prescribed to treat the ailments that accompanied her paralysis. She took pills to help with her diminished bowel function and to treat urinary-tract infections, a common occurrence in people with spinal cord injuries. Different pills stopped her muscles from spasming, and when she was thirteen, she had surgery to correct the scoliosis she developed from not having the muscles to sit up straight.

Aside from her disability, Hinton Leichtle was a regular kid. She had lots of friends, learned to drive an adaptive van, went to prom and was crowned homecoming queen. "We went to this really small school out in the country," says Hinton Leichtle's sister, Crystal Hinton, who's four years older. "People just really supported her and took her in so well.... She was really nurtured even though she had a disability."

After high school, Hinton Leichtle came to Colorado to attend the University of Denver. Crystal was already living here, and the two moved to a wheelchair-accessible condo together. Independent from her parents for the first time, Hinton Leichtle was eligible for Medicaid, a government program that provides health insurance to low-income families and people with disabilities. Things were good for a while; Medicaid picked up the cost of her medications and paid for a home health-care attendant to help her with dressing and bathing.

But at 21, Hinton Leichtle started experiencing chronic pain, another so-called secondary condition that can afflict people with spinal cord injuries. It came in episodes that would start at her feet and slowly creep up to her chest, burning and intensifying until it was hard for her to breathe. "I almost felt like I was being squeezed by a boa constrictor," she says.

The doctors prescribed Percocet to numb the pain, but the episodes grew worse, and soon Hinton Leichtle was taking four high-dose narcotic painkillers a day. The medication began eating away at the lining of her stomach, so that whatever she ate felt like fire in her belly. Her weight plummeted to 59 pounds, and she became too weak to go to class.

In September 2003, her sister came home from an extended yoga training session to find Hinton Leichtle in bed, unable to move without searing pain. Crystal called their mother, who called the Nebraska doctor who'd cared for Hinton Leichtle since she was a child. At that weight, he told them, her heart is working overtime. He suggested they drive her the six hours to her home town in Nebraska and admit her to the hospital.

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My Voice Nation Help
9 comments
Corners
Corners

Hi Chanda, I appreciate all you are doing to try and help others with spinal cord injury. I have an L1-L2 level injury from an accident when I was sixteen years old. Today I am walking with crutches, but I have worked really hard in physical therapy for a lot of years to walk.You can learn more about my story: http://zinahermez.wordpress.com  I agree with you, and I have never been a fan of pain medication myself. 

patricia.calhoun
patricia.calhoun moderator editortopcommenter

we'd like to publish some of these comments in our print edition, ideally with the author's full name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

notonmydime
notonmydime

Thanks Westword for alerting us to the use of the Medicaid waiver program to waste taxpayer money.

No one wants to say no to pretty victims of spinal cord injuries like Chandra, or self-motivated men like Mr. Haenel, so it is easy to see how the Chandra foundation has made progress. Sadly, its goals are clear--to get public money for unproven treatments.

 

Conventional medicine is based on scientific knowledge whereas alternative medicine is based on clinical or anecdotal evidence. We have an entire wing of National Institute of Health devoted to trying to prove that alternative therapies work (with little success, I add), and their website states: "there is insufficient evidence to draw definite conclusions about the effectiveness of acupuncture for acute low-back pain."

 

There are no control groups to this pilot program, and the medical person administering it is someone with a vested interest in the therapies offered. Proven treatments like physical therapy are lumped in with pseudo medicine, invalidating any objective demonstration of success that may come from the program. However popular these alternative therapies might be, we need to see evidence that they work.

 

I hope Colorado citizens and legislatures will thank the Chandra foundation for ironing out kinks in the Waiver program while demonstrating exactly how to suck scarce dollars from taxpayers in the name of the disabled. I also hope we demonstrate our thanks by showing poorly designed programs out the door, because our Medicaid patients deserve better.

 

kcm2us
kcm2us

gee Westword, could you make the lede to the story a little more lurid?

"carries her, like a bride over a threshold. He props a pillow between her legs, hikes up her redNebraska Huskers T-shirt, unwraps his sterile needles and taps them into the skin above where her black lace underwear peeks out from the top of her yoga pants."

 

kcm2us
kcm2us

Great! Will medicare start paying for my Budweiser? It kick-starts my kidneys, bladder and ureter and I prefer it to noxious drugs. 

cheryl.bianchi
cheryl.bianchi

this is fantastic news...now to get california to step up...thanks for your hard work

brendacombs
brendacombs

@notonmydime I certainly hope you never have a family member to suffer from a spinal cord injury and have only drugs with horrible side effects to deal with their health issues.  Please, where is your compassion?  Not all things are known and able to be proven by a medical system that will not listen to information that does not pad the pockets of  big pharma.  Is not the word of the patients any good for whether the alternative health care is working for them.  Would you rather pay for a surgery and and hospital bill with medicaid dollars than to pay for a few acupuncture treatments that takes care of the problem with no side effects?  Please open your mind and learn more about this issue before condemning disabled people to issues you can not begin to understand.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          

ybarcewski
ybarcewski

 @kcm2us I won't pay for you Bud but maybe it will pay for your rehab.

notonmydime
notonmydime

Medicaid and private insurance should both be paying for effective rehab, but this is a poorly designed program. We could just as well pay for toothpick based placebo treatment and point to its cost-effectiveness.

 
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