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Paralyzed shooting victim competes in marathons

By Stephanie Chen, CNN
After being paralyzed by her attacker, Christine Kent is competing in handcycling marathons.
After being paralyzed by her attacker, Christine Kent is competing in handcycling marathons.
  • In 2007, Allan Sinclair IV shot Christine Kent and ran her over with his SUV
  • Despite the paralysis, Kent says the attack has made her a stronger person
  • She competed in three handcycling marathons and plans to participate in more
  • Psychologists are studying "post-traumatic growth syndrome"

(CNN) -- Christine Kent's best feature had always been her legs. They were long enough for modeling and strong and sculpted by her passion for skiing.

Now, her legs are limp. She's lost the muscle definition of her calves and hamstrings. They don't feel like her legs anymore, she said. They feel like Jell-O.

Kent, 45, was paralyzed from the waist down after a man shot her in the back three years ago and ran her over with his SUV, leaving her crushed in the driveway.

But she has not allowed bitterness over the crime to consume her or confine her to her home in Oakland Park, a small city near Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Without use of her legs, Kent found strength in her arms. She propels herself in a tricycle-like contraption called a handcycle. In February, she completed the Fort Lauderdale A1A Marathon.

It was Kent's third race since she started handcycling last fall. That's nearly 80 racing miles and many more miles of training.

"I was just enjoying the fresh air and freedom of doing some sort of sport again," she said. "That made me feel so alive once again."

Her ability to continue to embrace life despite crippling injuries may be an example of what some psychologists call "post-traumatic growth syndrome."

Traumatic events prompt some people to thrive, according to research by Richard Tedeschi and Lawrence Calhoun at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. The two psychology professors found that people are more likely to overcome a traumatic event than to develop permanent psychiatric disorders.

Psychologists have noticed the phenomenon among soldiers, terminally ill patients and crime victims. Traumatic events can challenge beliefs and force a healthy re-evaluation of priorities, experts say. The trauma can be a turning point that shapes a person in a positive way.

"They don't sweat the small stuff," said Frank Ochberg, a renowned psychiatrist who focuses on trauma. "Given a second chance, they would chose their battles differently and pursue their dreams."

Despite chronic pain and fatigue, Kent said she emerged from the attack stronger than before. She said she doesn't let what people say about her bother her and has grown closer to her mother and siblings. She's also become more appreciative of her friends, who bring her lunch and keep her company several times a week, Kent said.

"It's still difficult living my life every day in a wheelchair, but I don't take things for granted anymore and appreciate all the little things in life."

The tragedy also strengthened her Christian faith and led her to build new relationships through her spinal injury group and volunteer organizations. Recently, these new connections led to a group of people painting her walls and paving her driveway for free.

Kent said she met her attacker, Allan Sinclair IV, in 2003 at the chiropractic office where she was working. "I always enjoyed helping people and taking away their pain," she said.

Sinclair had asked her out several times and she said she turned him down. He became an acquaintance, the guy who occasionally helped her move heavy windows and lawn equipment. One night in 2007, Kent recalled, he showed up on her front porch, saying he wanted to show her some photographs from a recent trip.

Though his surprise appearance made her uneasy, Kent invited him in. Minutes later, he put a pistol to her face and ordered her to turn around, she said.

A grim scenario flashed in her mind, said Kent: She imagined blood splatter all over her living room and her white couch. She pictured her cat's paw print in blood. She envisioned the look on her mother's face when she learned her daughter was dead.

She decided she wanted to live.

She tried to escape to the driveway, but fell to the ground when a bullet tore through her spinal cord. She was lying helplessly on the ground when Sinclair ran her over with his vehicle several times. She was hospitalized for 4½ months, unsure if she would survive, she said.

She's had four surgeries to repair her back, abdomen and spleen.

Sinclair, who was convicted of conspiring to kidnap, rape and kill Kent, is serving a life sentence without parole, according to records from the Florida Department of Corrections. Kent said the trial and conviction gave her the strength to move on.

Ochberg, the trauma expert, said crime victims face challenges that differ from those of survivors of diseases or natural disasters. When a crime victim is deliberately hurt by another human being, the feelings of dehumanization are difficult to overcome, in part because physical injuries serve as constant reminders, he said.

Kent's paralysis tells her daily that she can't have children, something she still wants.

She has changed her lifestyle to accommodate the disability. She has modified her home to be handicap-friendly and is looking for a customized van. She wants to be independent again. She's created a fund to raise money for her injury-related expenses.

Despite all the things she can't do, Kent is making progress where she can. From her wheelchair, Kent helps a blind woman pull weeds. She cooks dinner for a neighbor who recently lost his job.

She speaks to teens and women's advocacy groups. Faced with others who have suffered traumatic events, Kent said she gives them a simple piece of advice: "You can pick up and become a better person for it."

Kent said she plans to race in three marathons in South Florida this fall. Her voice bubbles with excitement when she discusses handcycling.

She already has shaved 30 minutes off her time. A friend recently told her about wheelchair tennis, which she plans to try.

"She hasn't given up on life. She has not only found a reason to live, but she is trying to help others," said Ann Marie Stenhouse, Kent's 70-year-old mother.

"She's going full speed ahead."