Kelley Shinn visits Portsmouth Island. Photo by Scott Bradley

Kelley Shinn’s memoir “The Wounds That Bind Us” is published and will be available June 1 at a book release party at 4 p.m. at Books to Be Red, featuring North Carolina’s Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green.

By Connie Leinbach

Kelley Shinn found Ocracoke the perfect place to write her memoir about losing her legs—and almost her life–when she was 16.

Shinn, 48, formerly an adjunct professor of writing at the University of Akron, began living on the island in 2013 with her two children on a writer-in-residence fellowship to chronicle her life.

She is out and about frequently riding her bike, swimming and walking on the beach, and engaging in many activities on the island, charming all with her ebullient personality, quick wit and ready laugh.

She jokes about her metal legs: “That’s Shinn with two Ns; no shins.”

As 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 as an ambassador of healing.  

She has been able to travel the world and hobnob with incredible people, she says.

“I’ve had opportunities that wouldn’t have come to me if I hadn’t lost my legs,” she says.

But achieving emotional peace meant she first had to overcome psychological despair several degrees higher than typical teenage angst.

“The emotional pain was far more excruciating than the physical pain,” she says of the aftermath of the disease that claimed her legs.

Shinn was a star high school runner in Akron, Ohio, when in May of her junior year she was struck down with a rare form of bacterial meningitis, which most frequently hits people who are in close proximity to others, such as in college dorms.

A week after Shinn was at a running camp, she began to feel like a bad flu was coming on.  Although she entered a hospital with a fever of 103.7, she was discharged shortly thereafter.

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 delayed.

“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.”

Pain was excruciating.

“I was burning from the inside out,” she says. The invading bacteria were microscopic knives cutting into her cells. “I was septic and in insane pain.”

A photo of herself lying in the hospital bed shows the purple areas where the disease attacked all over her legs and arms.

“I first lost my toes, then my feet, then my legs…,” she says about the ordeal that left her with no legs below her knees. 

“I 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 23 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.

She 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. 

After hitting emotional bottom, she booked out of Akron with $470 and drove east until she got to the ferry at Hatteras, arriving on Ocracoke where she hid for a week.

Later, 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., where she received a bachelor’s degree in classical studies and a master’s degree in creative writing.

While in college, she decided she wanted to drive around the world in a Land Rover, and in 2001 she was outfitted with a state-of-the art vehicle from the company.

On behalf of the Landmine Survivor’s Network, she visited victims with whom she has something in common.

“Ninety percent 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.

“I’m 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.”

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center, she returned in 2003 to the United States and continued her education and pursuing a career as a writer.

Through the years, she found herself drawn to remote places where, she says, “It’s difficult to run from yourself.”

Ocracoke is one of those places.

When she returned to Ocracoke in 2013 and decided to live here for a year discovering kindred spirits turned that year turned into permanency.

She knows how blessed she is.

You can’t compare your suffering to others, but you can compare your own from day to day,” she says. “Today is a great day. I have life, and that beats the alternative.”

Follow her on Instagram @kelley.shinn for behind the scenes and upcoming book tour dates.

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