Tears of Strength: CHS Prof Assists Shooting Survivor with Access to Exoskeleton Therapy

By Ryan Clark
CHS Communications Director

April’s arm muscles bulged and strained.

Her teeth clenched. And, with the help of the exoskeleton, she struggled to stand on shaky, unfeeling legs. Slowly, and with a seemingly superhuman effort, she pulled and pushed and willed herself out of her sitting position.

The crowd that had gathered around her exploded in cheers. They clapped their hands, and some wiped away tears. Few were prepared as to how emotional the presentation would be.

“I’m standing today,” she declared. And before the day was through, April Ballentine would do a lot more than that.

‘Live in the moment’

More than 50 family, friends and students gathered at UK’s Sports Medicine Research Institute last week to encourage Ballentine — who was left paralyzed and unable to walk in 2013 after being shot five times by a former boyfriend — as she used a special rehabilitation exoskeleton to help her stand and walk.

Dozens of other students, faculty and staff in the College of Health Sciences watched as the courageous effort was shared via a livestream.

Denise O’Dell, PT, DSCPT, associate professor in Physical Therapy, met Ballentine when she volunteered as a patient for the UK DPT students at the Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital.

“It's very challenging to role-play and teach the students how to help someone who had a spinal cord injury or a brain injury,” O’Dell said. “April has volunteered a large number of years for my colleague, coming into the lab and the students perform a Physical Therapy evaluation. She volunteers her time.”

“And I make it fun too,” Ballentine said. “So I think the personality fits because I break the ice, and make them laugh, and say the unexpected. But that's basically how it started. And I’ll continue to do so as long as she has me.”

Ballentine and O’Dell, who was just hired in 2021, have only worked together with the students one time. But O’Dell was impressed. She saw a spark in the survivor.

“What do you want to do?” she asked Ballentine. “Have you had goals?”

“I have a goal to walk,” Ballentine replied. “I’ve been in talks with ReWalk, but no one here in the community does it.”

O’Dell could see how important standing and walking was for her — even though it would be different than before.

“I’ve taught for, or I’ve assisted as a faculty member, for almost 20 years in different part-time and full-time roles,” O’Dell said. “I have had a lot of these opportunities with community patient volunteers and that one was different. Her drive and success to date is what made me share my contact information with her. Which is not, again, what usually happens.”

So, O’Dell got involved. And together, they brought ReWalk — a company that produces wearable, robotic exoskeletons to enable individuals with spinal cord injuries to stand upright and walk again — to the University of Kentucky.

“I could see the drive that she has to, one, give back to society, to better herself, to stay engaged,” O’Dell said. “So, we talked about how great it would be if we could partner together more in certain situations. And she was telling me, ‘I’ve worked out. I go three times a week. I work with the trainer. I moved on to be able to live by myself, which I hadn't been able to do.’

“So, she had taken all of these steps, and all of this work,” O’Dell continued. “And so, I just saw that spark in her that, ‘I still want more.’”

But you also have to keep perspective, Ballentine said.

“As a paraplegic, you want to walk,” she said. “That's your goal. And so, every day that was what I was pushing for, but I had to learn that I had to live for today and not tomorrow. Because if I lived for walking, then I couldn’t live in the moment.”

‘So much positive energy’

So, on the day that so many people watched her in SMRI, Ballentine used the time to not only stand upright — she used the exoskeleton to walk a lap around the perimeter of the room.

Her daughter was there, along with her mother. Her trauma surgeon. Her trainer. All cheered her on, amazed at what they saw.

And then there were the students. O’Dell hoped her students would relish the opportunity to see something so special.

“I hope, one, that they always ask, ‘Why not?’” she said. “Even in today’s health care environment that’s really challenging and demanding, and has a lot of burnout, that there are these one-off cases, or these opportunities that they can do more. They get an opportunity just see what’s out there, and how much it can help our patients.

“A lot of times, early in their career, it’s like, ‘We want this person to get everything back they had.’ In neurologic rehab, that’s not always the case. But there are a lot of ways to get that quality of life that are different than the everyday classroom experience.”

Hannah Young, a Physical Therapist student in the Class of 2024, said the experience reaffirmed why she chose the major.

“This truly will be an unforgettable moment, and I did get teary-eyed seeing the reactions of her support system — especially when her daughter hugged her while she was standing. That was something I'm guessing they never thought would happen again, but it did,” Hannah said.

The student said she now wants to explore the neuro specialty of physical therapy.

“I was impressed by this experience, and I can confidently tell you that I saw what is possible — and it makes me fall in love with physical therapy even more,” she said.

Meagan Wilson, vice president of the class of 2023, said she had no idea what to expect before she witnessed the event.

“To watch her struggle a bit at first to figure out the cues and using her arms, but then successfully stand, was incredible,” she said. “As a future PT, I was trying to take in as much as possible and learn from the situation. I was amazed at her strength. That was hard work for her, and I felt proud of her for successfully walking. I was glad to be a part of that experience.” 

Briana Lanham, in the Class of 2023, said she learned that possibilities are endless.

“It was quickly made clear how important and life-changing the experience was for her and her family. It was emotional watching both her and her family during this experience, especially when she made her first couple of steps,” she said. “I now understand that as future Physical Therapist, I should work as hard as possible to help create opportunities for my patients. I should never be satisfied until my patients are satisfied.”

O’Dell said that after watching Ballentine, the entire trial day went beyond her expectations.

“There was so much positive energy for April to succeed,” she said. “By having such a team approach and inviting varied groups of people to the experience in person and virtually, so many more people have an awareness of the power of access to upright mobility options for individuals following spinal cord injury. I’m hopeful this leads to more opportunities in Kentucky.”

‘Tears of strength’

Now, Ballentine is fundraising to get a device of her own, which can cost more than $100,000. 

At the end of the grueling two-hour workout in front of family, friends, ReWalk representatives and students, Ballentine took drinks of water and tried to stop her hands and arms from shaking.

With effort, she used a finger to wipe away a tear.

“These are tears of pain,” she said, taking a deep breath. “But these are also tears of strength and tears of joy.

“It was all of that together.”


To learn more about April Ballentine’s story, visit her Facebook and Instagram.

To see more of her story on UKNow, visit this link

To see April's story on WKYT, visit this link

March is Women’s History Month, and the College of Health Sciences will spotlight Women Making History. Whether students, faculty, staff or alumni, these women are leading their fields of research, crossing traditional academic boundaries and impacting Kentucky’s most pressing challenges.