Two years ago, Leah Hadden-Watts was caught in the middle of a gang war that left the notorious leader of the Red Scorpions dead.
Unable to move much more than her shoulders after a bullet shattered her spine, she’s made a remarkable recovery.
When Leah Hadden-Watts shuts her eyes, she feels her legs floating, her limbs not quite part of her. When she dreams, she’s sprinting, bounding up stairs and navigating life with her feet firmly planted on the ground.
“I really do believe everything happens for a reason,” says Hadden-Watts, smiling serenely as the fall sun sets and shifting, ever so slightly, in her wheel chair.
There are times, however, she wishes that she’ll suddenly wake up and walk right out of her nightmare.
The summer of 2011 started out like every other for Leah, then just 21. She had completed a course to be an insurance broker and was waiting to start a new job. While she waited, she exercised. She ran between five and 10 kilometres daily, and took yoga classes, sometimes twice a day.
“Honestly, I was in the best shape of my life,” she says.
On the weekend of Aug. 14, Leah headed to Kelowna, a town she often escaped to for getaways. As she checked into the Delta Grand Hotel, there was plenty to look forward to. The sunny Okanagan was a place for her to relax, to sun bathe on the lake, to let loose and dance.
At 2:45 p.m., Leah got into a white Porsche Cayenne with Lyndsey Black and three other acquaintances – Larry Amero of the Hells Angels, James Riach of the Independent Soldiers and Jonathan Bacon of the Red Scorpions.
Leah remembers little about what happened next, but as she settled in the back seat of the Porsche, a SUV pulled up behind them – three men inside, their faces covered with balaclavas. At least one pulled out an automatic rifle and began to fire.
Witnesses estimate they unloaded up to 30 shots, at least a full clip, spraying the drive-way of the luxury hotel with bullets, sending guests ducking for cover.
One of those bullets hit Leah in the shoulder, bounced, then travelled through the fifth and sixth vertebrae of her spine.
Others struck Black, Amero and Riach. Bacon, a marked man, was killed.
“This was a targeted, organized attack by the highest level of organized crime in our province,” Chief Supt. Dan Malo, with the RCMP’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit, said as he announced the arrest of three rival gang members earlier this year.
“This was not a contact that was unplanned.”
Police believe Amero, Riach and Bacon were in Kelowna that weekend as members of a recently formed criminal alliance commonly called ‘The Wolfpack.’
“This violent incident rocked the City of Kelowna in an act so brazen that it might have been mistaken for a bad action film,” Malo added.
“However, for the victims and members of the public who witnessed the events, it was all too real.”
Leah, whose uncle is a member of the Haney Hells Angels, is reluctant to talk about the people she was with that day because of an upcoming trial for those charged.
However, she stressed that she did not know Bacon. The others were acquaintances.
Once struck by the bullet, her memory blanks.
Unconscious and bloody, she was bundled into an ambulance – the prognosis at first surprisingly positive.
“They thought the bullet had just hit my shoulder,” says Leah.
But as her mom drove up the Coquihalla Highway, doctors learned the injuries were much worse.
Leah was flown to Vancouver General Hospital, where she was rushed into surgery.
It took eight hours for doctors to remove the shattered bones and insert “a cage” to hold up her neck.
Her parents were warned: once Leah woke up, she would not be able to move much more than her head and shoulders.
Groggy and confused, Leah opened her eyes to a cold hospital room, unable to speak because of a tube inserted into her neck.
“I wanted to scream, but I couldn’t. I wanted to cry, but couldn’t,” she says.
The only way Leah could communicate was via a letter board.
“My parents would hold the spelling board up to me. They would start at ‘A’ and their fingers would move along the alphabet until they hit the letter I needed to spell.”
Leah wasn’t angry, though. She felt loss – like when you lose someone you love.
“I felt completely trapped inside of my body,” she says.
All she wanted to do was sleep. In her dreams, it was all OK.
“They were trippy and magical,” says Leah, describing the lucid reveries brought on by morphine.
Her body felt alien, full of sensations she’d never felt before. It hurt all over. It burned as nerves died. She was full of pins and needles.
“When they say your nervous system is all electricity, it’s true,” she says.
It would be two months before Leah spoke, even then it was barely a whisper.
“My lung capacity wasn’t strong enough. I couldn’t push enough air past my vocal chords,” says Leah.
The pneumonia she contracted and meningitis on her lungs only made things worse.
“I just felt so trapped and there was nothing I could do about it,” she says.
There were times when Leah didn’t want to live anymore.
“You are so used to living one way, you can’t even imagine the future because you have all these dreams for yourself. But it’s going to be so much different now. I didn’t want to be here, but there was no way I could think that with all the love and support from my family and friends.”
Every time Leah woke up, there was someone at her side. Her mom, dad, step-dad, her sister.
Her room was filled with get-well-soon cards. Her mom would read her the text messages sent by friends and strangers, wishing her well.
“It felt good just to know there were people out there who genuinely wanted me to get better, that they believed in me,” she says.
“I tried to just keep thinking everything happens for a reason, you never know what the future holds. This is just going to be a journey. A different journey than most take.”
Leah spent five months in hospital before she was transferred to the GF Strong Centre, where she spent another seven.
From the initial diagnosis that forecast a mostly bed-ridden future, Leah had made much progress.
She was eating solids -– her first indulgence was chocolate, with caramel flakes; her first meal – home-made macaroni and cheese.
After a month at GF Strong, Leah got into a wheel-chair.
“They just assumed I would be in a sit-and-puff chair, that I wouldn’t be able to move even a joystick,” she says.
Leah surprised everyone, though. She slowly gained strength in her arms.
By April 2012, she was allowed to take a weekend trip home.
It was the first time she had been in her bedroom in eight months. But being there was both scary and comforting.
She was afraid of autonomic dysreflexia, a life-threatening condition that could be set off by something as simple as sitting on a wrinkle in her pants or putting pressure on a part of her body she couldn’t feel.
“I was pretty fearful of that happening at home and not having nurses and doctors right there,” says Leah, adding she eventually braved it.
“You just have to face the reality.”
Determined to heal, Leah began researching how best to treat her injury. She started seeing a naturopath and started treatments in a hyperbaric oxygen chamber, stimulating the growth of new blood vessels.
Her friends, meanwhile, began fundraising to help her buy exercise equipment to increase her bone density and muscle mass.
This summer, she began working out with her cousin Korey Frostad, a personal trainer and her calm, encouraging coach.
In a park overlooking the Fraser River, he can’t help but marvel at how far she’s come.
“Can you push harder?” he says as Leah lifts both arms upwards while he pushes down.
The brain has its own way of coping with trauma. Bad memories stay stuck in the brain’s nether regions – the areas below the cortex, the thalamus, hippocampus, hypothalamus and brain stem.
Some people see and feel only their trauma, others see and feel nothing at all.
Leah’s in the second category and prefers not to dwell on the past.
“I think I’ve just worked really hard to be at peace with things,” she says.
Most of all, she’s forgiven, absolved those who fired the shots.
“We’ve worked hard as a family to move forward from the day,” says Leah.
“Everyone can hold a lot of anger and resentment, but for myself, if I stay there angry, bitter and sad, it’s really just holding me there, holding my energy in that space. I just have to let things go.”
She doesn’t want revenge, although she is suing the hotel where she was shot and those who fired the shots.
“I would prefer for people to look towards the positive and forgive and forget.”
In spring, Leah will be heading to India to begin stem-cell treatment, which cost $40,000 each time.
She makes no bones about her dreams – someday she wants to walk again.
Friends and family of Leah Hadden-Watts are holding a fundraiser Oct. 26 to help her pay for stem cell treatment. Information about the fundraiser can be found on Facebook at Leah Hadden-Watts Fundraiser – For A Better Life or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org