By Peter Vankevich

How does a talented, athletic teenager deal with unexpectedly losing her legs and almost her life?

Ocracoke Islander Kelley Shinn has spent the last 32 years exploring that harrowing ordeal, which has now been turned into a memoir, “The Wounds That Bind Us,” published by West Virginia University Press and available at Books to Be Red.

Outgoing and personable, to see Shinn with her two metal legs, one would not be aware that her earlier life had been one of great physical pain, despair, resilience and hope, filled with a cast of unforgettable characters and a trek to a former war zone.

This journey is depicted in colorful detail and memorable prose filled with both humorous and sad stories.

At 16, Shinn had a lot going for her.

A scholarship-level cross-country and track star, in her junior year in Akron, Ohio, she suddenly felt sick soon after having attended a running camp.

It worsened from feeling like the flu to entering the hospital with a fever of 103.7 degrees only to be discharged without treatment. Soon purple spots appeared all over her body and she reentered the hospital. By the time it was diagnosed as a rare form of bacterial meningitis, the damage was done.

Trying to control the rapidly spreading bacteria, a process of dismemberment took place.

“I first lost my toes, then my feet, then my legs. I came very close to losing my right arm,” she said about the ordeal that almost killed and left her with no legs below her knees.

After three months in the hospital, eventually ridding the body of the deadly bacteria, she had to face a new life coping with both physical and psychological trauma.

The first years after her loss of legs, she recounts, were her worst. 

A recruiting Quaker college honored her scholarship, but she withdrew after having been caught smoking a joint in the chapel and entered into a rebellious period of estrangement from her family, drifting, using drugs and alcohol and getting raped.

During that dark period a girl she met told her she was part of the Rainbow Tribe and invited her to join as “there was always room for one more, because that’s how the cosmos works.”

For months Shinn lived with them in an old rundown Victorian house numbing herself with weed and LSD.

A chance encounter one night with her father in a diner near the Goodyear tire factory where he worked was an epiphany that jogged her out of her despair and set the theme and purpose for her memoir.

After an awkward silence, he finally spoke. “Your mother and I miss you so,” he said. “If you can’t come home, take care of yourself.” He then gave her $10—all he had left for the rest of the week.

Watching him leave with tears in his eyes, she writes, “There was no more confusion as to what love is—it’s the act of the wounded extending mercy to the wounded.”

Shinn portrays the good and bad in her journey and there is plenty of both.

One of the joys was the birth of her daughter Celie who accompanies her through Europe.  

Another was a malpractice settlement that permitted her to accomplish things that were previously unthinkable: studying at Hollins University in Roanoke, Virginia, where she obtained a bachelor’s degree in Classical Studies and an M.F.A. in Creative Writing, and the ability to finance her travels.

No longer able to run through the wooded trails she so loved, she discovered the world of off-road vehicles.

“Who knew that a four-wheel-drive vehicle could be a satisfactory replacement for flesh, bone, and blood,” she queries in the book.

That led her to buy a used Land Rover which she named Athena after the Greek goddess.

“If I paid tribute to Athena, she might protect me,” she writes.

Her father rigged a heavy-duty car seat so that Celie, at age two, could join and mother and daughter hit the road for four months across the country including in the Moab Desert.

In college, a lecture on the devastation caused by landmines and seeing pictures of women and children with amputations struck her deeply, especially one image of a young girl in a rice paddy with prosthetics like her own, starting just below the knees and labeled “To Know That We Are Not Alone.”

A successful pitch to the Landmine Survivors Network headquartered at the time in Washington, D.C., provided her sponsorship and set her and Celie driving from England to Bosnia-Herzegovina to illuminate the plight of landmine survivors.

Along the way, Shinn met a wide range of people including Sir Terence English, who performed Britain’s first successful heart transplant in 1979. She taught him how to off-road for a world rally he was in, and in exchange, he supported her cause and provided a contact from whom she purchased a rare military Land Rover for her journey that she named Athena II.

Her portrayals of the victims of landmines and her reaching out to them highlight the theme of how we are all bound by being wounded and healed by compassion for one another.

The distinctive characters she writes about were drawn by curiosity to Shinn’s caring cause and her larger-than-life personality.

The memoir highlights that Shinn’s wounds are not just physical, and they began well before her high school days.

Her biological mother gave her up for adoption and she spent the first year of her life in an orphanage. Her relationship with her adoptive mother was rocky and at times violent.

This book will draw favorable comparisons to The Glass Castle, the 2005 memoir by Jeannette Walls, who recounts her dysfunctional family and nomadic upbringing.

Shinn said hers is a story that needs to be heard — as a warning, as a beacon of hope, whatever the reader wants to take from it.

“But as far as being inspired, I can’t say that I was,” she said. “What inspires a writer to write is akin to asking a heart what inspires it to beat. It just does what it does, and so I wrote this book because that’s what I do. I write to try to effect change in a hurting world.”

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