That meant isolation, and it was profoundly depressing, particularly under the circumstances.

The sympathy she has for the doctor who told her to her back that she was paralyzed does not (understandably) extend to the nurse's aide who — trying to reposition her in bed — yelled, "Bend your knees! This would be so much easier if you'd bend your knees!"

Or for whoever designed the chapel at Good Samaritan Hospital; she's not religious, but one day during rehab, Longdon tried to go in. Her wheelchair wouldn't fit through the chapel door.

Jamie Peachey
Days before their injuries, Rueckert and Longdon taught martial arts to children in a village in Fiji.
Courtesy of Jennifer Longdon
Days before their injuries, Rueckert and Longdon taught martial arts to children in a village in Fiji.

Ultimately, surgeons would remove parts of both of her lungs, wire her ribs together, and put her in a medically induced coma to heal.

When she woke up, the patient-controlled pain medication helped — but what she really wanted was a shower — or at least to have her hair washed. One of the few friends who was able to sneak into Longdon's hospital room in those early days had taken her hair down — it reached way down her back in those days — and began to brush it out. It was matted with blood, bone, and bits of brain matter. It was in the folds of her ears, on her back.

It wakes her up at night, even now. "They were brushing bits of David's brain out of my hair."

When she finally got that shower, the nurse put on a slicker and rain boots and wheeled her into a giant shower stall.

It was better than sex. "I used soap, hot water, touched my skin all at once. I cried," she says.

Even for someone used to intense physical training, rehab was just about impossible. Longdon had lost so much strength; she was sick and depressed, almost blacking out the first time they helped her dangle her legs off the side of the bed. She was getting almost no information about Rueckert and still was in almost complete isolation.

Every day, a social worker came into her room and asked her to repeat:

"My name is Jennifer Longdon. I have a spinal-cord injury. There is no treatment at this time."

Longdon refused. The social worker would scribble furiously in her chart, then leave.

"I am paralyzed. I get that," she says now. "It's kind of hard for me to forget. But I will never accept it. Accepting it is a defeat. I fight it every single day."

Aware the mood's getting a little dark, she paraphrases the comedian Chris Rock: "This is the only condition where the prescription is furniture."


Longdon never did go home. Home was a two-story house with doorways far too narrow for her wheelchair.

She visited it once, the week she was released from rehab.

She had to go to the bathroom, but her wheelchair didn't fit. She couldn't see the door frame where, for years, her son's height had been measured.

"I just sat there and cried."

Friends from the martial-arts community took her in; a few months later, Rueckert joined them. He had lost his sight — and more, which Longdon is careful not to talk about too much.

She's also circumspect about the shooting, now a cold case in the hands of the Phoenix Police Department.

"You just don't know. There are still theories," she says, her voice trailing off.

At first, it kept her up at night.

"I cannot accept that anyone can have that much malice," she says, closing the case with her tone. "For my own sanity, I had to create resolution.

"It was random."

With the case faded from the headlines, Longdon became Rueckert's caretaker — spoon-feeding him, shaving his chin. Later, they moved into a ratty apartment, then the house she's in now. The struggle to care for Rueckert got tougher as her own health declined. She remains medically fragile. In the first three years after the accident, she was hospitalized 10 times.

She was seeing her son less, too. She felt she didn't have any choice.

"What was I going to do? I couldn't abandon David . . . David had saved my life that night."

He continued to be loving — very loving, she says, constantly kissing her hand and telling anyone who would listen how wonderful she was. People thought it was romantic.

"It wasn't romantic. It was frontal-lobe damage," she says, motioning to her wheelchair. "I would never trade this for a brain injury."

In 2009, after Longdon broke her leg and things got way worse, Rueckert moved out. She hasn't seen him in two years, and just a couple of months ago, she took off a ring he gave her when they were both in the hospital.

She filed for bankruptcy, survived a lot of suicidal thoughts and one serious attempt. She burned through a lot of friendships — she wondered how any of her friends could stand her, figuring they'd drink heavily before picking up the phone.

"Woo! I'm going to call Jennifer now. Or I can get a pelvic," she jokes.

"You know, amazingly, you don't run out of tears."

The suicide attempt — a very close call involving a lot of vodka and pills — was a turning point.

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5 comments
Pat Elliott
Pat Elliott

Fantastic. We need to see more stories like this and hear from more journalists like Amy Silverman who can tackle difficult topics with sensitivity and accuracy.

Saracat
Saracat

Jen is one of the most incredible people I have ever met. Her courage and compassion are an inspiration and her sense of humor is hilarious

stefnj2000
stefnj2000

Jennifer is the epitome of strength and resilience. She is an inspiration to many and a true voice for wheelchair users, those with spinal cord injuries and others.

This article takes us into her life in the most intimate of ways. She allows us to know what her struggles are and that they don't stop her from countless hours volunteering and committees. I am proud to be a Phoenician with Jennifer Longdon.

kennedymsw
kennedymsw

Wonderful article and a great spokesperson and advocate for so many people and causes.  I hope Jennifer does run for office she needs a larger platform than facebook. 

donnagratehouse
donnagratehouse

Jennifer Longdon is the coolest person ever. I'm honored to know her. 

Great piece, Amy. One of your best. 

 
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