Beating the odds
Linwood Linwood — Katherine Cook scoots one foot in front of the other, balancing on a board about the width of a balance beam.
She makes her way to the end, fitting the final jigsaw piece into a puzzle of a tiger her therapist is holding.
“I’m strong,” the 5-year-old says while gritting her teeth. “Look how strong I am.”
It may not seem like a difficult task. It’s one the Linwood girl has repeated for months now at the Rehabilitation Institute of Kansas City, all the while a bullet remains lodged in her brain.
“She has made a lot of progress,” said Lynne Mersch, Katherine’s physical therapist. “It’s very inspiring. It is just amazing.”
Amazing, considering that seven months ago, Katherine lay comatose in a hospital bed at Children’s Mercy Hospital after a freak incident while playing in the backyard of her family’s rural Linwood home. No one has come forward to claim responsibility for the shooting that injured Katherine.
“It was a one in gazillion chance that it even happened,” said JoAnne Cook, Katherine’s mom. “A gunshot is so unreal; it’s just not real.”
It happened Feb. 23. The Cooks and their seven children, who were living in Oswego at the time, planned on spending the weekend remodeling a home they had recently purchased on the outskirts of Linwood. It’s a day that LaMont Cook, Katherine’s father, still has trouble talking about.
“You can’t imagine it,” he said. “It was a moment I do not like to reflect on or relive. It was a very difficult day, a heartbreaking, heart-wrenching day. It’s hard to describe the feelings that occur within you when you think you may have lost a little one.”
Katherine was playing outside with two of her brothers, while her parents worked inside the house. She was standing on a lower deck, near a large brick retaining wall, when a stray bullet struck her in the head. Her brother, Garrett, now 10, immediately ran inside for help.
“I didn’t initially hear what he had said,” JoAnne Cook said. “I could just hear the alarm in his voice. He kept shouting, ‘Katherine’s been shot! Katherine’s been shot!’ We went barreling outside as fast as we could, and there she was, laying on the pavement.”
‘Room to grow’
The bullet entered Katherine’s head just above her left eye, traveled through her brain and ricocheted off the back of her skull, before coming to rest toward the back of her head.
“That very first night we told the children they needed to be prepared to say their goodbyes,” JoAnne Cook said. “We were ready to send her on her way back to her heavenly father, and He saw fit to let us keep her.”
Katherine was hospitalized for two months, much of that time spent in a coma, before moving to the Rehabilitation Institute for daily therapy sessions.
It’s there that her recovery has really taken off.
During one particular session, her therapist attached an electrical stimulation machine to Katherine — something Katherine calls the “tickle machine.” The device helps stimulate the muscles on the left side of Katherine’s body, the ones rendered weak by her injuries.
After several exercises, Katherine walked up and down flights of stairs and then rode a tricycle, maneuvering around the building’s maze of hallways.
“She’s having to relearn a lot — not everything,” Mersch said. “You see some of the old learning starting to come back. The short-term memory is what’s more difficult for her. I think she still has a lot of room to grow, and I think she’ll continue making a lot of progress.”
Katherine’s youth actually is considered an asset in this fight, Mersch said. Time indeed could help heal — or make accommodations for — the implications of her long-term wounds.
“I think there are other areas of the brain that can take over and compensate for some of the areas of weakness,” she said.
In class, at play
The Cooks are amazed at the improvements they’ve seen in their daughter over the last seven months. In the days immediately following the shooting, Katherine relied on a ventilator to breathe and had to be fed through a feeding tube.
“I reflect back and just marvel at how far we’ve come,” JoAnne Cook said. “I feel so immensely grateful that she’s at the place she is because she has come a very, very long way.”
In August, Katherine did something her parents thought would never be possible. She started her first day of kindergarten and has been splitting time between attending school at Linwood Elementary, while still fitting in her therapy sessions in Kansas City, Mo.
In class, Katherine associates colors with objects just like her classmates — all with the help of a dedicated paraprofessional, Lynne Stallbaumer.
Stallbaumer reports that many of Katherine’s classmates are eager to be involved. Often the attention carries out onto the playground, where the other students become supportive playmates, walking arm in arm through games of hopscotch and helping her enjoy the welcome free time.
Looking for answers
As pleased as the Cooks are with Katherine’s progress, they still have many lingering questions about the investigation into their daughter’s shooting.
“It wasn’t a hunting accident,” JoAnne Cook said. “It was recklessness with a weapon, and a very dangerous weapon at that.”
Leavenworth County Sheriff Dave Zoellner said officially “it’s an open investigation,” which prohibits him from discussing details of the case. No one has been arrested and no one has come forward claiming responsibility.
“In some ways it makes me sad that someone hasn’t stepped up, because they know who they are, and it makes me sad that they haven’t made a move to even make restitution,” JoAnne Cook said. “Granted, they can’t give back what Katherine has lost, but she’s got a lifetime ahead of her of a very changed life — that’s going to be an expensive process.”
The Cooks rely on insurance — LaMont Cook is chief executive officer of Jefferson County Memorial Hospital in Winchester — to cover the costs of Katherine’s care, and are thankful for support from family, friends and others in the community who have rallied behind their daughter.
Volunteers in Linwood have pitched in to help with a variety of needs, even for renovations to the family home. Funds also have been established in Katherine’s name at Labette Bank, and Commercial Bank in Oswego.
‘Life is good’
In June, Leavenworth County Attorney Frank Kohl sat down with the Cooks to discuss the case. He said the biggest obstacle to prosecuting the case is the fact that the most important piece of evidence remains in Katherine’s head.
“Katherine still has the bullet in her skull and, absent the ability to do any sort of forensic tests, we can’t say for sure what gun fired that bullet,” Kohl said.
Doctors say the bullet won’t ever be coming out, as the procedure to remove it would cause too much damage. Kohl has classified the shooting as a “negligent” act.
LaMont Cook said the family does have the option of hiring a private attorney to pursue the case, either criminally or civilly.
“If there was a law that was broken, then I feel there needs to be the accountability associated with that,” the father said. “It’s really not about retribution because there has been damage done, and individuals are going to have to live with those decisions and choices.”
The Cooks said it’s something they’ll have to live with for the rest of their lives, too.
“Every day that goes by is a day that I grieve still at what Katherine’s lost, at what we’ve lost,” JoAnne Cook said. “I don’t know when and if that goes away. But life is good. We have a good life and a wonderful family, and it’s coming to a place where there’s a lot more peace and happiness again. It’s more of a life that we knew before.”