Karen Roy Lets the Good Times Roll

Editor’s Note: You’re not beaten until you give-up. Although you may not know where you’re going or what you’ll eventually become, as long as you continue to improve and try to be better than you’ve been yesterday, good things start happening for you. Karen Roy from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has proved that statement. A medical social worker today at Neuro Medical Center/Rehabilitation Hospital, Karen Roy has taken a journey to arrive at this position that demonstrates the courage of an individual and the never-say-die attitude that results in a successful life.

Karen Roy with her beautiful family in New Orleans.
Karen Roy with her beautiful family in New Orleans.
My childhood was spent in Marshalltown, Iowa, but most of my life was spent in Louisiana. My mom, dad, little brother and I had a picture-perfect family. My dad had an engineering background and sold large valves to chemical companies and oil companies. In Louisiana, the chemical and oil business was and still is a major part of the economy, and supplying this industry with equipment was very lucrative. My dad worked for Fisher Controls, which he said was the Mercedes of the valve industry, and became vice president of this company. I went to a very small private school in Baton Rouge, and, although there were only 68 students in my class, I had a lot of friends because I was a social butterfly. I fell madly in love at 16 and dated that same boy for 7 years. He was with me when I got shot. 

Karen had a picture perfect family and a great life.
Karen had a picture perfect family and a great life.
All my life, I had wanted to go to LSU (Louisiana State University), even when I lived in Iowa. I wanted to be a psychology major because I really liked being with people and helping people. I always knew I wanted a course of study that would prepare me for a profession that would allow me to help and interact with people as a part of my future. 

During my freshmen year at LSU, all my friends joined a sorority. I went through rush but my first four choices dropped me. My boyfriend was excited I didn’t get into any because he didn’t want me to be in a sorority, but that much rejection devastated me. After that, I had a lot of self-doubt and insecurities. So, I walked away from the sorority scene, and spent most of my freshman year studying hard and spending time with my boyfriend, who was a lead guitar player in a popular local band. I had a hard time keeping all the other girls away from him. I’d go watch him play and take the phone numbers out of his pockets that other girls put there. I had to defend my turf.

In September of 1987, I’d been back in school at LSU for a month for my sophomore year. My parents had rented an apartment for me, so my boyfriend, Mike, and I spent the weekend moving furniture. Afterward, Mike wanted to go to Tabby’s Blues Box, a well-known dive bar. Tabby was an old well-known African-American man and had played the blues for a long time with many famous people. If you wanted to go listen to authentic New Orleans blues, played by a famous blues musician, Tabby’s was the place to go. People of all ages and all races went there, even though it was in a bad part of town. I’d never been there before but Mike had been several times. I didn’t want to go to Tabby’s and we got into an argument. My parents even invited us to their house, but Mike didn’t want to go there. So, we went to the LSU football game and then on to Tabby’s. I had a bad feeling about going to Tabby’s. Today when I speak to people, I always explain, “When you have an intuitive feeling about something you shouldn’t do, don’t do it, because I did go to Tabby’s after that voice inside me told me not to go.” 

As we were walking towards my car after leaving Tabby’s, we noticed that the driver’s side window had been smashed, and that someone had broken into the car. I asked Mike, “Shouldn’t we call the police to get a police report?”, and just as I finished that sentence, I felt someone grab my shoulders, and on the other side of the car, I saw a man grab Mike and put a gun to his head. As soon as I felt the man grab my shoulders, I pulled my shoulders forward, and the man holding me hit me in the back of the head with his gun. I fell to the ground but wasn’t knocked out. On the other side of the car, Mike started fighting with the guy who had put a gun to his head — both trying to get control of the gun. From the other side of the car, I heard the man fighting with Mike yell, “Shoot him, Doty. Shoot him!” The guy who knocked me down put his gun in my back and pulled the trigger. He then took my purse, which only had $2 in it, and shot at Mike, as the other guy screamed, “Shoot him, Doty!” Next, Doty went around the car and pointed the gun at Mike to force him to let go of the other robber Mike had been fighting.  Then, they got whatever money Mike had and ran away.

At first, I didn’t realize I couldn’t move my legs. I was having trouble breathing. Not only did the bullet sever my spine, it also punctured my lung. Mike turned to chase the robbers, and I tried to tell him not to go after them. However, I really couldn’t talk or breathe very well. I don’t know how far Mike went, but the people in the bar who had heard the shooting came to help me. I remember lots of people standing around me and leaning over me. I thought I was going to die, so I said the Lord’s Prayer. I was about to black-out but I heard people screaming, “Don’t pass-out, or you’ll die.” So, I forced myself to stay conscious and awake.

The police arrived first and secured the area, and then the ambulance arrived. I later found out that police picked up Mike and interrogated him. They asked him questions like, “Did y’all come down here to buy drugs?” Mike was freaking out, because he didn’t know what had happened to me, or where I was. He kept telling them that he wanted to go to the hospital to find out what had happened to me. When I got to the hospital, the doctors put a chest tube in me so I could breathe. They discovered that the bullet had gone through the lungs and shattered my spine. When they tried to put the tube in my chest, I didn’t know what they were doing – I just knew the procedure really hurt. The doctors told my parents that if I lived through the next 48 hours, I would be paralyzed for the rest of my life, because the bullet had severed the T10 and 11 vertebrae in my spinal cord.

Within 48 hours after the shooting, the police caught the guy who shot me. First the police caught the guy the other attacker and that guy told the police the name of the shooter. The shooter was sentenced to 248 years in Angola Prison without any chance of parole or probation. When I went to court to testify, the scene was very strange. The shooter tried to stare me down like he was angry and threatening me. I realized that being angry with him wouldn’t help me, and remembered thinking, “Ok, it doesn’t matter how mad you are; you’re the one sitting over there in shackles, wearing an orange jumpsuit and facing a lifetime of being locked up. You have no power over me.” A friend of mine, who wanted to write a book about this whole tragedy, wrote my shooter letters. He always said he didn’t do it. However, there were witnesses, besides me, who said they saw him shoot me.

Three or four days after my surgery, when I was in ICU, a nurse was washing my hair and told me I’d never walk again. I remember my mom coming in for a visit after the nurse had told me I’d never walk again, and I was crying. She got upset about the nurse telling me in that matter-of-fact way. Of course, there’s no good way to find out that kind of news. Then a surgeon came in and told me I’d be paralyzed for the rest of my life. I thought to myself, “Buddy, pull up a chair and sit down for a second.” Even though everyone told me I’d never walk again, I didn’t believe that diagnosis completely for probably 3 years. I prepared for the worst and prayed for the best. 

The gunshot had severed Karen's T10 and T11 vertebrae and broke her spinal cord.
The gunshot severed Karen's spinal cord, leaving her paralyzed from the waist down.
After the shooting, I spent a week in ICU, a week in the regular hospital and 5 weeks in rehab. I was at Mississippi Methodist Rehab Hospital in Jackson and I hated it. Not because it was a bad hospital, but because I didn’t want to be there. I was angry about being in a hospital; I wanted to go home. They told me I would be in rehab for about 3 months, and I thought in my head, “Yes, in your dreams. I’m getting out of here.” The therapist would try to teach me things and I’d say, “Look, this isn’t rocket science; let’s move-on to the next thing.” I learned how to catheterize myself. I knew I could learn quickly. All the therapists had to do was show me one time, and I could do it. I wanted to get back home. I wanted to get back in school, and I wanted to finish the semester I’d started.

Karen was determined to walk again.
Karen was determined to walk again.
Mike had gotten an apartment with my mom when I was in the hospital so that they could both visit and stay with me at different times. Mike was really having a lot of problems with guilt. He knew I didn’t want to go to Tabby’s, he knew he had talked me into going, and he knew that if we hadn’t gone, I wouldn’t have gotten shot. Also, he walked away healthy from the attack and I was paralyzed for life. So, he was carrying a big load of regret. But, he was a security blanket for me through this whole tragedy. He helped me get back into school. My parents were a tremendous support. They modified their house to be wheelchair accessible. However, after living at home for 6 months, I was ready to get my own place. I’d just moved into an apartment at school so I had a taste of independence and I wanted it again. So, I got an apartment. The first thing I did was learn how to work out on every piece of equipment I could to keep my body in shape. Before the shooting, Mike gave me a bike for my birthday that I rode everywhere. I kept that bike in my bedroom for 3 years, thinking that I’d one day ride it again. Then I found a $15,000 bike that used electrical stimulation that enabled me to ride. I did everything I could do to stay active because I thought I might walk again.

The real reason I continued to ride the bicycle was to make my legs look good. I decided that if I would be in a wheelchair the rest of my life, I still wanted my legs to look as good as they could.
Finally, after 3 years, I decided that I wasn’t going to wake up one day, get out of the bed and walk. Working out as much as I did really helped, but I finally gave my bicycle away. Even though it was sad, I knew I’d be in my wheelchair the rest of my life.

After the accident, Mike and I dated for 5 years. We actually planned a wedding, but we always had an on/off-type relationship and part of me felt Mike only wanted to be with me because he was guilty about what happened. I couldn’t determine if he wanted to be with me because he loved me or because he felt that I was now his responsibility. As the wedding plans progressed, we sent out invitations, started getting gifts and hired the preacher, the caterer and the florist. However, I couldn’t fight the feeling that Mike was only with me because he felt guilty. I’d already called off the wedding one time due to this reason. Then, when we were only 4 weeks away from the wedding, he made a comment that made me think he wasn’t fully committed. My mom made a comment to Mike about sending the invitations, and Mike replied, “Well, that might have been a little premature.”

We got into a big fight and then I called my mom and told her the wedding was off. Although my bridesmaids already had had their dresses, I think they were glad I called it off. After I had canceled everything, I called Mike at work and told him. I said, “I know you’re scared, and there’s something not right about us getting married. Please don’t call me anymore.” I felt that if he was still hesitant about marrying me after 7 years, there was something really wrong with our relationship. I felt we needed to move-on with our lives. Mike was upset, because he didn’t think he really thought that I’d call the wedding off. To be honest, I didn’t think I would call the wedding off either, although I did.

Now, here I was. I’d just canceled my wedding, graduated from college with a degree in psychology and was working at a travel agency. I decided to have some fun and see what the world was like. I’d been in a relationship for 7 years and thought I had missed out on a lot. I thought no one would want to be with me because I was in a wheelchair, but I soon discovered that there was still a population of males who wanted to date me and getting a date wouldn’t be a problem. I dated about as many guys as I could and went a little crazy for about a year.

After my crazy year, I realized I needed to return to school, so I enrolled in the Master of Social Work Program at LSU. I knew I needed some kind of education where I could make a good living, because my dad had told me, “You need to figure out what you want to be. Right now, you’re spending about $40,000 a year (I think he was exaggerating) with the lifestyle you’re living. So that’s what you need to make.” But, I had a problem. When I was going through my wild spell, I got pregnant. I married the guy, even though I really didn’t know him that well because I’d always thought and believed that if you got pregnant, you got married. I knew that he wasn’t a good person before we got married. He had a reputation that preceded him, and I was scared to death of him. When my daughter, Caroline, was only 6 weeks old, I filed for divorce. I was a mess. I was in a wheelchair, divorced, had a kid and was going to school to get my master’s degree. I realized I’d be really heavy baggage for any man to carry, because I was heavy baggage for me to carry. So, my mom agreed to take care of Caroline while I finished school, and I worked nights as a hospital operator at a women’s hospital so that Caroline and I could get insurance.

One night when I was studying at a coffee shop, I noticed this good looking guy sitting a table away from me and started flirting with him. Neither one of us got any studying done because we were so busy flirting with one another. Finally, he got up and walked out of the coffee shop without saying a word. I thought to myself, “Karen, you dummy, you’ve wasted your whole night that you could’ve been studying. He didn’t even come over and ask for your phone number.”  A few days later, I was out with some of my friends at one of the local LSU bars and saw that guy from the coffee shop on a date with an LSU volleyball player from Brazil, who was 6’3” and very pretty. She also could walk, didn’t have a baby and never had been married. However, Phillip spotted me, walked off from his date, came over to me and said, “You’re the girl who made me fail my finals.” He then asked for my phone number.  

I don’t think he ever saw the tall, pretty volleyball player from Brazil after that night. He called me a few days later, and we started dating. On our first date, I found out he was 21, and told him I was 26.Then, there was a long silence. He thought I was about 23 or 24, and neither one of us had considered there was a 5-1/2-year difference. The next time he called and asked me out, I told him, “Look, I’m divorced, I have a baby, and I’m in a wheelchair.” I said, “If you don’t want to date me, I get it.” But, my past really didn’t seem to bother him. As the relationship progressed, there was one time where he really wanted to go out with his friends, and I didn’t want to go. I was all about being a mom, and now that I was one, I wanted to be a good one. I told Phillip, “I’m ok if you want to stay here with me and Caroline and watch ‘Barney’, but I also realize that you’re 21. If you want to go out and be with your friends, that’s fine with me.”

We both got past the age difference and my background. I graduated with my master’s degree in social work, and 2 months later Phillip graduated with an engineering degree. Six months later, we were married, and Phillip adopted Caroline. A few years later, we had a baby boy named Austin. Then, on Austin’s second birthday, I found out I was pregnant with Joseph. Today we have three children.

Karen and Phillip married now have three beautiful children.
Karen and Phillip (on their wedding day) now have three beautiful children.

After I received my master’s degree in social work, I started working with pediatric and geriatric patients. Then I went into hospital social work and medical social work, doing counseling and case management. I work at the hospital with stroke victims and brain injury and spinal cord injury patients. I definitely think that my being in a wheelchair helps me in my line of work, because I’ve actually done what many of my patients are beginning to learn how to do. My wheelchair has made me very employable in the type of work I do.

I’ve got a great family; Phillip is an engineer and designs safety systems to keep chemical and oil plants from blowing up. Apparently I’ve married a man very much like my father. My children are 18, 14 and 12. One of the problems with having teenagers is that my life at home isn’t very different from my life at work. At the hospital, I’m a troubleshooter. If the patient at the hospital has a problem, the hospital calls the social worker (me). If a patient goes a little crazy, they call the social worker (me). So, when I get home from work, if any of my children has a problem, I’m the one they come to, and if my children go a little crazy, they go to me, so home isn’t really that different from work. My husband is more passive so I feel like I’m the heavy all the time. But, every once and a while, he’ll step in and solve the problems before I get there. I tell my children, when they want to be tough, “You may be strong, but I’m stronger.” I also say, “I’m not your friend; I’m your mother. You don’t have to like me. I really don’t like you right now, but you’re going to do what I say.”     

When someone asks me what’s in the future for me right now, I say, “Tuition.”  Right now my biggest dream is to get my kids through high school, and then we’ll start thinking about college. I look forward to pay raises in my future, and I hope to be able to travel in the future. One day I hope to have enough money to do things other than pay tuition for private schools and college. But, I love doing social work, and I plan to do this job as long as I physically can handle it. I’ve got a great life, a great family and a great job. I’m just taking life as it comes.  

Written by John E. Phillips, this story is part of the Hometown Heroes series created by UroMed and is reprinted with their permission. Headquartered in Suwanee, GA [a suburb of Atlanta], UroMed is one of the nation’s leading providers of single-use catheters, urological and disposable medical supplies, and continence care products.  UroMed was founded by Bert Burns, a former Paralympian and C6-7 quadriplegic. 20% of UroMed's customer care representatives are users of the very same products that they provide. For more information, please visit http://www.uromed.com or call 1-800-841-1233.


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