Kelley Shinn finds Ocracoke the perfect place to write her memoir about losing her legs—and almost her life--when she was 16.
40, an adjunct professor of writing at the University of Akron, is
living on the island with her two children on a writer-in-residence
fellowship to chronicle her life. She also is conducting a writing
workshop for islanders through the Friends of Ocracoke Library.
is out and about frequently—riding her bike, off-roading on Portsmouth,
swimming and walking on the beach, and engaging in many activities on
the island, charming all with her ebullient personality, quick wit, and
She jokes about her metal legs. “That’s Shinn with two Ns; no shins.”
“Having no legs, I’ve learned to be a dancing monkey,” she says about her life.
she is “disabled” in the technical sense, she is more able and active
on her metal legs than many “whole” people. She can walk around all
year on her plastic feet — with or without shoes--and sometimes goes a
little crazy with them. Such as during the recent Blackbeard’s Pirate
Jamboree when she dressed as a pirate wench with her artificial feet
painted with Blackbeard’s notorious black flags and asked folks for a
donation to the festival to take a photo with her actual “peg legs.”
After she swims in the ocean, she pulls her leg up close to her body to drain the water out of her feet.
with some people who have overcome difficult illnesses or physical
challenges, she realizes that this traumatic event when she was a
teenager led to her calling as a writer and ambassador for
amputees. She has been able to travel the world and hobnob
with incredible intellectuals, she says.
“I’ve had opportunities that wouldn’t have come to me if I hadn’t lost my legs,” she says.
achieving emotional peace meant she first had to overcome psychological
despair of a degree several times higher than typical teenage angst.
“The emotional pain was far more excruciating than the physical pain,” she says of the disease’s aftermath.
was a star high school runner in Akron, Ohio, the adopted daughter of
working-class Greek-American parents when in May of her junior year she
was struck down with a rare form of bacterial meningitis. She
rattles off the stages of the disease--and the critical time frames
needed for treatment--with the ease of the expert she has become on it,
noting that this disease hits most frequently people who are in close
proximity to others, such as college dorms.
“The disease runs its course in 24 hours,” she says. “It’s the aftermath that kills you.”
was a week after Shinn was at a running camp at Ohio University when
she began to feel like a bad flu was coming on. Although she got
to Akron Children’s Hospital with a fever of 103.7, she was discharged
The next morning, purple spots all over
her body prompted a rush to another hospital, though, even there, her
symptoms were not recognized immediately and treatment was further
“I wasn’t treated for 19 hours after onset,” she says. “If I’d had antibiotics at the first hospital, I would have been okay.”
The disease eating away at her body was excruciating.
felt like I was burning from the inside out,” she says. The invading
bacteria acted like microscopic knives cutting into her cells. “I was
out of it and in insane pain.” Four hundred milligrams of morphine a
day barely did anything for the pain.
She shows a reporter
snapshots of herself lying in the hospital bed showing the purple areas
where the disease attacked all over her legs and arms. It is not an
easy photograph to look at, knowing that as the disease progressed, the
purple areas on her body began to die, necessitating surgery.
first lost my toes, then my feet, then my legs….” She says about the
ordeal that left her with no legs below her knees. At one point
her lung collapsed and she was dead for 14 seconds.
came very close to losing my right arm.” It bears the scars.
Numerous skin grafts were part of the treatment. She was in the
hospital for 98 days, eventually undergoing 27 surgeries.
“The doctors were shocked that I survived,” she says, but being young and athletic was the key.
Amazingly, she started her senior year of high school on time and finished on time.
“The wrestlers would carry me up and down the stairs,” she says about that year.
moved out of her parents’ house at 17 and fell into a self-destructive
spiral of drugs and despair living in the underbelly of Akron.
This period of her life is chronicled in graphic detail in an essay in
the literary publication, Bayou Magazine, 2011, University of New
After hitting emotional bottom she booked out of Akron
on her artificial legs, $470, a half-ounce of pot and drove until she
got to Hatteras and got on the Ocracoke ferry, arriving at Blackbeard’s
Lodge where she hid for a week, venturing out now and then around the
She found a new beginning with a settlement from
a lawsuit against the hospital that misdiagnosed her. This enabled her
to attend Hollins University, Roanoke, Va., from where she received a
bachelor’s degree in classical studies, and a master’s degree in
While in college, she decided she wanted to
drive around the world in a Land Rover, and in 2001 got the opportunity
to do that. She was outfitted with a state-of-the art vehicle from the
company, and on behalf of the Landmine Survivor’s Network, she visited
victims with whom she has something in common.
of land-mine amputees are women and children,” she says, explaining
that she drove from Britain through Europe to Bosnia-Herzegovina where
she encountered many amputee war survivors and wrote about them.
a girl from the Midwest, and I saw all these houses pock marked with
bullet holes,” she says. “I thought I could help them, but they helped
me more than I knew. I figured out that I wasn’t alone.”
landed in Crete where her journey ended due to the United States’
invasion of Afghanistan following the Sept. 11, 2001 attack on the
World Trade Center. Because of the ensuing conflict, she never
completed the round-the-world trek but returned to the United States
and continued her education. She pursued a career as a writer and
professor of writing and a new academic area called “narrative
medicine,” which helps doctors learn the stories of their patients.
The birth of her daughter, Cecilia, when she was 24, and later her son, Silas, 7, saved her life, she says.
“With kids, you have to live outside your life,” she says. “From them, I received some sense of self-worth beyond me.”
she says of her children in her essay, “A Crippled Cassandra,” about
how her physical loss has affected her being a mother and citizen of
the world, “They hold me up in the greatest of strides.”
Through the years, she found herself drawn to remote places where, in her words, “It is difficult to run from yourself.”
is one of those places. She hadn’t been to the island for 15 years
before June when she returned and decided to live here for a year.
“There are a lot of eclectic people here,” she notes. Right up her alley.
island is a good place to take advice from one of her doctors--adapt to
the environment--and she has found the beach a great place to break in
the new legs she gets every two years.
“I walk in the sand to create the calluses (on the stumps), then the salt water heals them,” she says.
She knows how blessed she is.
“You can’t compare suffering, but you can compare yourself,” she says. She has her life, “and it beats the alternative.”
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