Sometimes a game of Solitaire isn’t a game at all.
April McConnell sat in a wheelchair, facing a computer screen, a wireless keyboard on her lap. She diligently worked an apparatus attached to her right hand along the keyboard’s trackpad, slowly clicking and dragging cards from one stack to another. Soon her physical therapist attached a stylus to the Velcro band on her hand, to see how that would work.
The 32-year-old attorney willed her arm to follow instructions from her brain.
“Oh good grief,” she mumbled, as she attempted to move a stack of cards across the screen. “I can do this.”
To say McConnell is motivated during her therapy sessions at the Shepherd Center would be a gross understatement, according to family and friends.
The promising Fulton County prosecutor was sitting in a car April 25 with a former co-worker, Levon Hailey, when they were shot multiple times by her estranged husband, Tranard McConnell. Hours after shooting his wife and Hailey, McConnell took his own life.
For the last two months, April McConnell has been in recovery mode. She wakes up every morning, more than eager to take on the day’s activities, which leaves her best friend in awe.
“I don’t know that I could do it, if it was me,” said Rosalind Harris, a friend since eighth grade.
April McConnell doesn’t recall Tranard McConnell, her husband of two years, firing a gun at her. She can’t remember feeling the bullets that entered her body two days after she filed for divorce, and Monday at the Shepherd Center where she’s been in rehab since early May, she’s still not sure of particulars surrounding the multiple surgeries she has endured.
“I’ve learned from what people tell me,” she said. “In a way, I’m still learning what happened.”
On April 25, McConnell said she went to the Clayton County courthouse with Hailey. She’d been promising to help him with a legal matter, and that day was her deadline to complete the task.
It was a Friday, and she picked Hailey up in her blue Honda. They went to the courthouse as planned and returned to his house on Fairway Circle in Atlanta just before 11 a.m.
“I was headed to a hair appointment after that, then to work,” she said.
McConnell and Hailey were wrapping up their conversation when she saw movement outside the passenger side window. She recognized her husband’s torso, but her memories from that point on are spotty.
“I remember thinking, ‘He wouldn’t shoot me’,” she said.
’It didn’t have to end this way’
He shot her three times: in the right side of her face, breaking her jaw; in her right forearm, where she now has a titanium rod; and in her back, causing a spinal injury which has left her with little feeling below her chest and without the use of her legs.
She was rushed to Grady Memorial Hospital where she had six surgeries inside of a week. At some point, she was told her husband killed himself the same day he shot her.
“That was surreal,” she said, about the news of her husband’s suicide. After a long pause she continued, “For so many reasons, it didn’t have to end this way.”
The former April Ross met Tranard McConnell during their freshman year at Atlanta’s Douglass High School. They graduated in 2000, went to separate colleges, but dated off and on. She went to Florida A &M University, where she earned a bachelor of science and MBA in five years. After college she worked at Best Buy’s corporate office, while deciding whether to follow her heart and go to law school. In 2008 she enrolled at Emory University’s law school and graduated in 2011, the year they got married.
Initially the couple was excited about the life they would make together, but by the end of 2013, McConnell said it was clear the marriage wasn’t working. She left the home she and her husband shared in January.
“I filed for divorce April 23, gave him the papers April 24 and this happened April 25,” she said. “And I can tell you I never thought something like this would ever happen.”
Harris, who knew the couple during their high school years, said as far as she knew there was no cause to believe Tranard McConnell would act out in such a violent way. “I think all of us who knew them were floored,” Harris said.
Harris received another shock when a few days after the shooting, McConnell asked Harris to represent her at Tranard McConnell’s funeral on May 3. McConnell also asked her mother and sister to be there.
“In spite of her condition, which at that time was still critical, she was at a place where she wasn’t going to allow herself to be in a negative place,” Harris said. “That spoke volumes.”
McConnell said she had to release much of the anger she felt toward her husband. Her recovery depended on it.
“Sometimes I feel angry, very angry,” she said. “But then, I just ask God to have mercy on his soul.”
Looking towards a bright future
McConnell, who is scheduled to leave the Shepherd Center later this month, said she is determined not to be defined by this tragic event. McConnell was hired as a Fulton County assistant district attorney in early 2012. By 2013 she was engrossed in one of the office’s largest cases, the Atlanta Public Schools cheating scandal.
Though her life changed dramatically the day of the shooting, she believes her future is brighter than ever.
That is why Monday’s game of Solitaire was, for McConnell, a gateway to regaining her independence. And though it was her first day in the Shepherd Center’s technology lab, she had high expectations for herself. McConnell has a laser-like focus on her goals and on the therapy that will improve her chances of success. Though doctors say she likely won’t walk again, McConnell says she has other plans.
At a belated birthday party last week, which doubled as a fundraiser, McConnell told the dozens and dozens of people who came to celebrate her: “I never stop trying to move these legs.” In fact, while lying in her room a day or two later, she made the toes on her right foot twitch.
“I told everyone in the room to be very quiet and still, and I did it again,” she said with a wide smile. “It took everything I had, but I have witnesses.”
Gornata Ross, McConnell’s mother, said she draws strength from her daughter’s recovery goals. “She hasn’t wasted any energy,” Ross said. “And I believe she will do more than she did before this happened; now there are so many new avenues open to her.”
McConnell knows her recovery will come in stages and over a long period of time, but she is up for the challenge.
“Some of these adaptations, in my mind, are temporary,” McConnell says of what she learns during therapy sessions. “For me, it is ‘until I get the strength,’ or ‘until I get this back,’ or ‘until that happens.’ This is not forever.”