The day after she was struck down by an assailant's bullet last year, doctors told 25-year-old Cheryl Vaughn she would never walk again.
Sitting in the living room of the apartment she shares with her mother in north Redondo Beach, Vaughn, a former aerobics and ski instructor, matter-of-factly recounted the shooting--and the doctors' prognosis--as she strapped on leg braces and prepared not only to walk but to dance a little.
"I guess it's not really dancing," she said, laughing, as she bounced from side to side, arms waving and fingers snapping in time to Michael Jackson's "Beat It." "I really just jiggle around."
But for Vaughn, the "dancing" and the halting steps she manages to take with a walker represent 16 months of unrelenting labor that have brought her closer to her goal of striding--unaided--into the offices of the doctors who said she would spend her life in a wheelchair.
To reach that goal, Vaughn's therapists say she needs an Acuscope, a machine that electrically stimulates nerves, to revive the motor nerves of her lower back and legs.
The cost of that machine--$6,500--has prompted Vaughn to embark on a project she hopes will not only raise the needed funds but also show thousands of spinal cord injury victims that they need not forgo physical fitness.
This week Vaughn starts work on a series of exercise videotapes for the handicapped, styled after the popular Jane Fonda workout tapes. She hopes to release the first in the series in a few months.
The tapes will feature Vaughn performing workouts geared for the handicapped, as well as stretching, meditation, relaxation and visualization exercises.
Tanned and fit, with long legs, pink-polished toenails, thick, honey-blond hair, green eyes and the muscular upper body of a champion swimmer, Vaughn looks out of place in her thigh-high braces and steel walker. That, she says, is one of the tricks she uses to keep her spirits up.
"I don't belong in these things," she said resolutely. "I refuse to look or act like some kind of invalid. I don't look like I belong in these things, I don't feel like I belong in them, and some day I won't."
Vaughn was paralyzed from the chest down after a man shot her in the back for refusing to dance with him.
"My friends and I were at a bar in Torrance; it was about 1 a.m.," she recalled, "and this guy asked me to dance. I politely refused. Later, when I walked out, he drove by in a car with three friends, leaned out the window, pointed a gun at me and said, 'Take that,' " shouting an obscenity.
Vaughn said she never felt the shot that partly severed her spinal column, nor the second shot the gunman fired into her calf as she hit the ground.
"I couldn't feel anything or move, and my first thought was, 'This is a joke. This must be an elephant tranquilizer or something.' "
Her attacker was sentenced to eight years in prison.
A bartender who was a "physical fitness nut" before her injury, Vaughn said she has applied her knowledge of exercise to aid her recovery.
"As soon as I was in the hospital, I knew I had to keep fit," she said. The alternative was atrophied leg muscles and eventual loss of bone mass, making recovery all but impossible.
At the Gibbs Institute, a neuromuscular clinic in Hollywood, Vaughn worked with therapists to develop a combination of modified side lifts, back lifts, sit-ups and weight lifting that have enabled her to regain some muscle tone and partial use of her back and leg muscles, although she still has no feeling from the chest down.
"I still have to look at my legs when I walk, because I can't feel where they're going," she said, scrutinizing her legs as she hitched herself across the living room. Medical tests have shown that Vaughn retains 40% to 60% of her spinal cord, with the sensory nerves suffering the most damage.
Elinor Gibbs, clinical director of the Gibbs Institute, called Vaughn's progress to date "absolutely remarkable."
"When she first came, she was diagnosed as 'totally complete,' meaning she should not have regained any movement or sensory functioning below the chest. Instead, she has developed terrific control of her body."
Convinced that she will one day walk, dance "( really dance") and ski again, Vaughn says her ultimate goal is to open a health spa for the handicapped.
"They really don't feel comfortable going into regular gyms, and yet they need exercise even more than most people," she said.
Clad in a purple tank top and bright yellow shorts, lying on her exercise mat, Vaughn stared at her legs and suddenly turned somber.
"Some days, it's hard," she said softly. "I sit around and think about where my life is going. I went out to lunch with a friend the other day, and we wound up at a restaurant with mirrored walls. I caught my first real good look at myself in a wheelchair. It devastated me. I thought, 'I can't belong here.'
"I'm not patient. But I'm learning patience. I know it's going to happen for me."