In many respects, Jenna Stahl's aspirations are no different from those of any other young woman. But Jenna is paralyzed from the chest down after being shot by an unknown gunman on Labor Day. Yet after nine months of three days a week of rehab and sheer determination, Jenna has made remarkable strides. In search of greater independence, Jenna will travel to Germany on June 11 to undergo an autologous stem-cell transplant.
Driving, finding a job and living on her own — in many respects the goals and aspirations of Jenna Stahl are no different from those of any other young woman.
How Jenna goes about living her life and reaching those goals will set her apart and, she hopes, will make her a role model.
Jenna, 20, is paralyzed from the chest down. On Labor Day, 2008, she was shot in the back by an unknown and still at-large gunman who intruded on her and her friends during a cookout outside a Tacoma Avenue home.
After nine months of three-days-a-week rehab and sheer determination, Jenna has made remarkable progress. Earlier this week, she sat at her family’s kitchen table in her wheelchair and later in her hot pink-painted bedroom and spoke of her gains and goals.
“I can sit up on my own for 15 to 20 minutes before I get tired,” she said. “I got some of my abs back. I can contract my abs now. Right now, I’m working on how to transfer myself from my bed to my chair.”
While Jenna still cannot use her fingers, her arms have gotten stronger. She has learned to use the heel of her hands to maneuver her wheelchair. She can eat, write and put on her own makeup. Away from her parents’ home, Jenna still likes to hang out with her friends and volunteers once or twice a week as a teacher’s aide at Holy Family School helping preschoolers to sixth-grade students with math, reading and writing.
“The kids are so awesome,” she said.
Germany-bound in June
Pleased but not satisfied with her physical progress, the 2007 Guilford High School graduate wants more from herself and out of life.
In search of greater independence, Jenna will travel to Germany on June 11 to undergo an autologous stem-cell transplant. Doctors will remove bone marrow from her hip, separate the stem cells from the marrow, and then reinject them into her spinal fluid via a lumbar puncture. The procedure, yet to be approved in the United States, is an attempt to regenerate neurons and cells and restore motor functions.
“They’ve seen pretty good progress,” Jenna said. “I’m just hoping to get anything back.”
While the procedure is considered outpatient surgery, it’s still a $10,000 operation that is not covered by the Stahls’ family insurance. To help defray the cost of the surgery as well as food and lodging, a $10-a-plate benefit for Jenna will be held from 4 to 7 p.m. Tuesday at Anna Page Park.
Accompanying Jenna on the 10-day trip to the Xcell Research Center in Düsseldorf, Germany, will be her friends Amy, 19, and Lisa Schobinger, 16, along with their mother, Michele Schobinger, a registered nurse who has experience in caring for people with disabilities.
Jenna said the surgery’s side effects, headaches that generally last two days, are minimal compared with the upside.
While nothing is promised, Jenna said, “I’d rather go and just try it rather than go the rest of my life and not knowing if it could have worked.”
Once a month, Jenna attends a support group at Van Matre HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital. She is encouraged by all in the group, including quadriplegics who can get behind the wheel and go wherever they want when they want. However, Jenna said it is a peer that gives her the most hope.
“I did meet this girl. She’s my age. She went to Russia for the same procedure. She’s able to take a couple of steps now. I know every injury is different, but she’s giving me some motivation.”
Stem-cell transplants, if performed within one year of the spinal injury, are most likely to produce results within one to six months after the surgery.
“I almost don’t expect to come back and magically walk,” Jenna said, “but even if I got a little bit stronger, that’s OK.”
Grateful to all
Regardless of the surgery’s outcome, Jenna said she is grateful to all who continue to keep her and her family in their thoughts.
“We’ve had people we don’t even know mail us things,” she said. “We get gift cards in the mail from anonymous donors. My best friend’s dad works with a guy, and he just decided out of the blue to donate $2,000 for the procedure.”
Jenna’s career path hinges only partly on medical advancements and science. Sitting or standing, Jenna has made a pledge to herself to fulfill one vocation.
“I really want to find a way to be an advocate and raise awareness for paralysis and street violence in general,” she said. “People don’t realize innocent people can get hurt just that easily.”
Chris Green can be reached at email@example.com or (815) 987-1241.