Drive-by victim Karina Vargas is talking the walk

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After two weeks at University, Karina was transferred to Craig Hospital in Englewood, which specializes in rehabilitation for people with spinal-cord injuries. She still had the bullet in her back; because she didn't have insurance, she and her family say, the University doctors couldn't do much beyond what was medically necessary to save her life, and that didn't include removing the tiny wad of metal that left her paralyzed.

Her lack of insurance would have prevented her from going to Craig, too, if it hadn't been for a charity program that covered the cost of a month and a half there. At Craig, the therapists focused on the basics, teaching Karina how to dress herself, how to use the bathroom and how to move from a wheelchair to a bed. But they didn't have time to work on what Karina really wanted — learning to walk again — and besides, she wasn't the best patient.

"I was young and I was kind of snotty," she recalls, "and I think they would get frustrated with me. But what could I do? I couldn't control the way that I felt, because it was so fresh."

By the end of her stay, Karina was eager to leave. But when she got home, she realized there wasn't much for her to do. She didn't want to return to Central, and she didn't have the strength or the motivation to take classes online. The friends who'd swarmed around her all but disappeared. "I really didn't do anything," Karina says. "I'd honestly just be here at my house, and my mom would do her personal therapies on me."

Her mother, Mina, had experience recovering from a devastating injury: When she was a young woman in Mexico, she was hit by a truck that pinned her between its bumper and a wall. She broke both of her hips and couldn't walk for four months. "I always had in my mind, 'I'm going to walk, I'm going to walk. I'm the one that controls my body,'" Mina says in Spanish, pausing so her children can translate her words into English.

But for Karina, it was different. As the months passed, she didn't get better. She did, however, begin to change. Before the shooting, she was a tough kid who sometimes skipped school, who ran along the dirt paths of the Bluff Lake Nature Center for hours every day and who loved to fight so much that her friends nicknamed her Mike Tyson. She was a typical crazy teenager, she says, intensely focused on herself and the little dramas that made up her life. Now, she says, she takes the time to notice and appreciate the things she admires about other people. The teenage spitfire she once was has given way to a calm and introspective young woman who doesn't take things for granted. After the shooting, Karina began volunteering with an organization that advocates for undocumented immigrants. She also began speaking out about gun violence.

"She did a 180-degree turn," her mother says.

However, one thing that hasn't changed is how Karina feels about the man who shot her. She isn't mad at him, she says, and she never has been.

"Why am I going to be mad at something I can't change? I feel that for the most part, it's on me, that I need to make myself better. I mean, I could blame him, but I choose not to, because I don't plan on being here for the rest of my life. I don't plan on being in a wheelchair; I don't see it. I try to picture it, and it's like, hmmm, I can't."

A chiropractor who examined her told her that the bullet didn't, in fact, sever her spinal cord, she says. The X-rays, he told her, showed that the bullet was resting right next to it, and he said that her paralysis was likely caused by nerve damage from when the bullet ripped through her back. With therapy, he told her, she might recover.

But with no insurance and her father's modest construction wages as the family's main source of income, Karina doesn't have any way to pay for professional therapy. Barely sixteen when she was shot, she's never held a paying job (though she's eager to work now). She also has yet to graduate from high school. Last year, she attempted to attend an alternative school program in which students earn credits online. But she says she wasn't in the right frame of mind to do the work, and after a few months, she stopped going. Her emotions, she explains, can get overwhelming.

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar