April 16, 2004
Victim of stray bullet overcomes paralysis at Methodist Rehabilitation Center
By Susan Christensen
Health and Research News Service
JACKSON, Miss.—Swanzetta Rankin won’t soon forget the last time she took feeding herself for granted.
It was the night of Feb. 26, and the 28-year-old was at her mom’s mobile home in Waynesboro. She had just polished off a plate of peas and cornbread and was nodding off in front of the TV when she heard a strange pop that seemed to vibrate inside her brain. Soon after, she went blind in one eye and numb from the neck down.
“I thought I had a stroke because my head was hurting so bad,” said Rankin. “I was in total disbelief when the ambulance driver told me I had been shot. Come to find out a 9-millimeter bullet was lodged in the recliner I was sitting in.”
That’s where the bullet landed after it tore through a bedroom wall, a chest of drawers and the soft flesh of Rankin’s neck.
Rankin just returned home after more than a month of intensive therapy at Methodist Rehabilitation Center in Jackson, and her recovery so far has been remarkable.
She has regained movement in most of her body, and even taken a few steps with assistance. But she has many adjustments ahead—including coming to terms with being a random victim of violence.
After all, who could imagine that a hard-working, church-going woman could be gunned down by a stray bullet while relaxing in her recliner in small town Mississippi?
Waynesboro police have arrested a suspect in the case, who is believed to have shot the bullet from a nearby nightclub.
“We have gotten stray bullets in windows and vehicles, but this is the worst incident we’ve had as far as injury,” said Waynesboro Police Investigator Mark West. “The night she left here we didn’t figure she would ever walk again.”
Statistics show that stories like Rankin’s actually aren’t that uncommon. Acts of violence (primarily gunshot wounds) are the nation’s second leading cause of spinal cord injury. Since 1990, they’ve accounted for 21.6 percent of spinal cord injuries reported to the National Spinal Cord Injury Database.
At Methodist, Rankin is the 40th patient to be treated for a gunshot-related spinal cord injury since 1999.
As the bullet plowed a tunnel through Rankin’s neck, it fortunately only grazed her spine. But the impact sent shock waves through her spinal cord.
“I was conscious in the ambulance and I couldn’t feel anything from the neck down,” Rankin said. “I was just praying: ‘Lord, don’t let me die like this. I’ve got my whole life ahead of me.’ I asked the Lord to please make a testimony out of my accident to win people to Christ.”
Seven days after the shooting, Rankin moved to Methodist for intensive in-patient therapy designed to help her achieve the highest level of independence possible.
To aid her recovery, Methodist Rehab physician Michael Winkelmann prescribed 4-amino-pyridine. “It’s a potassium channel blocking agent that seems to increase a person’s ability to recover from a spinal cord injury,” Dr. Winkelmann said.
“Sure enough, when I took the medicine I could feel again,” Rankin said. “I couldn’t believe it. The therapists began exercising my arms and legs and feet and I could feel the changes physically. I started improving day by day.”
While people with motor neuron injuries very rarely have a complete recovery, Dr. Winkelmann said Rankin’s progress is very encouraging. “She has strength in her extremities and it looks like she’ll get back to walking.”
Methodist physical therapist Cathy Henderson said her first order of business for Rankin was to address the skills needed for wheelchair control. “The toughest thing at first was her sitting balance. We had to build up her time—10 seconds, then 30 seconds, then a minute. Now she can sit on her own. We also got her on the hospital’s weight-supported treadmill system and parallel bars and she was able to advance her feet.”
To address her upper body deficiencies, Rankin also worked tirelessly with Methodist occupational therapist Bridgett Pelts. “She has very little active movement in her right arm and she has weakness in both arms,” Pelts said. “We are working on getting her to the level where she can feed herself and use adaptive equipment to wash her face and brush her teeth.”
On a recent Tuesday, Rankin’s mission was to get a peanut M&M from her tray to her mouth. Although she dropped more than she munched, every victory made her smile.
“She’s always bright and eager and comes in with the attitude: Whatever you think is best,” said Henderson. “She’s very determined,” added Pelts. “She’s a good worker.”
“You have to stay positive,” Rankin said. “If you let a negative thing get in your mind, you can destroy the whole idea of getting better.”
And Rankin definitely plans to get better. She wants to return to her job as a Wal-Mart customer service manager and get back to playing drums at her church.
Because she’s the youngest of six siblings, Rankin’s family wasn’t sure at first how she would handle the hard days of therapy. But they say she’s proven to be the family’s strongest link.
“What made us hold up as well as we have is her attitude,” said her mom Maedessie Rankin. “If she wasn’t like she is, we would have broken down.”
Rankin left Methodist on April 9—a “very good Good Friday”—and was headed home for a celebration that her mother promised would be a “wang-dang-doodle.”
After more than a month of dining on hospital food, Rankin was relishing the idea of feasting on some homemade barbecued ribs once she gets home.
And she also was looking forward to the opportunity to thank everyone who has been so supportive of her recovery. “People all over Mississippi have been visiting and calling and telling me: ‘We are praying for you.’ The reason I’ve recovered so quickly and so fast was the positive attitude and because of the prayer.”