People: Alix Reese: "I'm still myself"

Joel Oliphint

When Alexandria Reese dreams, she never uses a wheelchair. She walks. Sometimes her ventilator is there, but instead of using it to breathe she wears it like a backpack. She's often doing mundane activities, like working at Charlotte Russe in Polaris Fashion Place, where she used to catch shoplifters as an assistant manager. In her dreams, she tells people she has a disability, but they disagree. They tell Reese there's nothing wrong with her.

In reality, Alix Reese hasn't been able to move anything below her shoulders since the night of May 27, 2010, when she and a friend found themselves in the crossfire of a gunfight at Atcheson and Trevitt streets on the East Side. Reese was giving her friend a ride, and as she slowed down at a speed bump, bullets ripped through the car Reese was driving. One bullet entered her neck, shattering parts of her spinal cord.

Reese remembers something hitting her neck, then feeling her head fall slowly forward as her friend screamed her name. When she eventually awoke, she found herself paralyzed from the shoulders down and at the very beginning of a months-long spinal-rehab regimen.

And yet, six years after that violent, life-altering night, Reese feels lucky. "The doctor told me the bullet was millimeters from my carotid artery," she said recently in the empty chapel at Villa Angela Care Center, quiet but for the rhythmic sounds of machine-assisted breathing. "I'm still alive and still have the same mentality and personality that I had before. I'm still myself."

Reese's love of science fiction and fantasy has never waned. She watches "Game of Thrones" religiously and has amassed an impressive DVD collection. She saw "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" in the theater. She reads Neil Gaiman and "Harry Potter" books on her Kindle. Reese can manipulate tablets via a stylus in her mouth, which enables her to keep in touch with friends on Facebook and Instagram and read "The Walking Dead" comics on her iPad. (She's met Norman Reedus, who plays Daryl Dixon on "The Walking Dead" TV series, several times; he signed her chair.)

While she gets along well with her nurses, most of the residents at Villa Angela are significantly older than Reese, 31. Her shared room is noisy, with constant dinging from the hallway, so she spends much of her day in a larger, lobby-like room with a TV, parked near a fake tree. She drives herself there, blowing through a straw to control her chair (a soft sip in to turn left, a soft puff to go right).

As miraculously positive as her attitude usually is, at times her situation gets her down. "I let myself cry just a little bit, and then I get over it," she said. "It's good to let your emotions show sometimes, but not let them overtake my situation."

Reese's mom or dad visits daily, and her friend Sarah McCollum brings Reese a black coffee from Starbucks when she comes every week. And every year around this time, Reese's friends and family gather for a party. This Sunday afternoon they'll get together at Level One Bar + Arcade.

Reese also hopes to take classes to become a speaker or a teacher. She'd been looking into classes at Columbus State the day of the shooting, and she has no plans of abandoning that goal. "Learning to live with a disability doesn't stop me from doing the things I like to do and want to do," she said. "I don't think anyone with a disability should let it affect them, either, because you're still the same person."

Don't mistake Reese's positive attitude for complacency. After the shooting, no one ever came forward with information to lead police to the person who did it. That person is likely still alive, unpunished. Reese remains in contact with the detective in charge of her case. She craves justice. "I want people not to forget that my case is still open, and I'm still here like this," she said. "And I want answers for what happened."

Reese admits that before that night in May 2010, she didn't understand the extent of gun violence in Columbus. She didn't think about gangs or turf wars. Now she can't help but think about it. "I'm proof of what happens with gun violence," she said. "We need to have stricter background checks and we need psychological screenings."

Reese speaks with confidence about those issues, and that self-assurance is relatively new. Before her injury, "I was so nervous all the time," she said. "Now I feel like I can accomplish whatever I put my mind to. … When people see me, I don't want people to be like, 'Oh, that poor girl.' I want them to see me as a normal person. I just happen to be in a wheelchair."

Update: Nearly six years to the day of Reese's shooting, 10TV is reporting Columbus Police have arrested 25-year-old Drakkar Groce in connection with the incident and charged him with felonious assault. Just days ago, when Alive spoke with Reese, she had no new information regarding her case. Alive will post updates as more information becomes available.