Jennifer Longdon Wears Her Heart on Her Facebook Page

Page 5 of 7

"Am I being medevaced?" she asked, feeling a spotlight on her face.

"No," someone said. "It's the news vultures."

Longdon couldn't breathe. She kept trying to tell the doctors that her reg (short for "regulator" — a scuba term for the device you breathe through underwater) was blocked. There was blood everywhere. The hospital chaplain came.

She wasn't supposed to survive.

She'd lost so much blood, they couldn't give her anything for the pain. She passed out.

She recalls waking up on her side in a hospital room with her back to the door — and to a doctor, who told her she had a spinal-cord injury and would never walk again.

Longdon has sympathy for that doctor. "Doctors are human beings, too," she says, adding that breaking news like that couldn't be "fun or easy." In a lot of ways, that moment defined her experience.

"No sugarcoating. It's kind of me. It's kind of how this thing has been all along."

And that, she says, is spinal-cord injury.

"When it comes down to it, I'm paralyzed — that's what today's going to be."

The news about her fiancé wasn't great, either.

Rueckert had been shot in the brain, wrist, and shoulder. He was in a medically induced coma in another hospital. Longdon's ex and her son were allowed to visit, but for the most part, she was anonymous — the police were investigating, the reporters were hovering, and the authorities wanted to ensure Longdon's safety.

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.

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.

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Amy Silverman is a two-time winner of the Arizona Press Club’s Journalist of the Year award. Her work has appeared on the radio show This American Life and in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Lenny Letter, and Brain, Child. She’s the co-curator of the live reading series Bar Flies, and a commentator for KJZZ, the NPR affiliate in Phoenix. Silverman is the author of the book My Heart Can’t Even Believe It: A Story of Science, Love, and Down Syndrome (Woodbine House 2016). Follow her on Instagram (@amysilverman), Twitter (@amysilvermanaz), and at amy-silverman.com.