Shining Starla: Young paraplegic dreams of walking again

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Starla Hilliard Barnes, her husband Shannon Barnes and their daughter Elissiah pose for a Christmas portrait at their Kalispell home. Family and friends are trying to raise $100,000 for walking braces and a specialized rehabilitation for Starla, who was paralyzed in a hit-and-run accident four and a half years ago in downtown Kalispell.

Hope, peace and joy.

They’re words that define the miracle of the Christmas story. They’re also words Starla Hilliard Barnes lives by each day.

Hope that she’ll be able to walk again.

Peace if that dream doesn’t immediately come true, or never comes true.

Joy for a husband and daughter who love her, and a supportive, loving extended family who buoy her spirit every day.

Starla was riding her Honda CBR 600 sport bike through a downtown Kalispell intersection on June 23, 2009, when a white Chevy Silverado ran a red light, struck her and then sped away without stopping to see how badly injured Starla was. The hit-and-run driver never was found.

What that driver left behind was a crumpled young woman, clinging to life on the street. Starla had been thrown about 20 feet from her bike. Several of her vertebrae were broken, along with her collarbone, left shoulder blade and all of her ribs. Both lungs were punctured, and the force of the helmet crushed part of her face, causing extensive damage that would be remedied by a metal plate placed between her eye and nose.

Emergency responders quickly stabilized her and she was flown to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, where she spent close to three months.

Starla was placed in a drug-induced coma for two and a half weeks to help her heal; the internal injuries were extensive.

When she woke up she saw a police officer standing at her door. Her first thought was, “Did I kill someone?” Her mother, Wendy Hilliard, quickly assured her the officer was there because the person in the next bed over had shot someone.

After another week in a coma, Starla’s mother gently woke her.

“I didn’t know I was paralyzed,” Starla said, adding that she’d remembered moving her legs just after the accident. “So I asked my mom, ‘can you help me stand up?’ and she started bawling and told me I was paralyzed.”

Wanting to console her mother, Starla quickly told her, “It’s OK, I still have my arms and I can still hug you.”

It was that extraordinary spirit that drew Starla’s husband, Shannon Barnes, to her a couple of years later.

“She was such a positive person,” he said. “I could tell she had a lot of strength.”

A Kalispell native, Starla was a gymnast and competed in cheerleading competitions during high school. She graduated early from Flathead High School and by her early 20s already had established herself as a professional model and successful businesswoman. She began modeling as a young child and modeled in the Seattle area before returning to Kalispell.

After returning to Montana from Washington, she began working at Sleep City and managed the Sleep City in Great Falls until late 2008. Starla then went to work for Matt Downing State Farm Insurance in 2009.

Starla grew up in an active family, and riding dirt bikes and motorcycles was what they did for fun.

“My mom grew up on dirt bikes,” she said. “We did, too, before we started with street bikes.”

Starla and her brother Z.J. are just 9 1/2 months apart and they shared a love of riding motorcycles.

Her father, Zeph Hilliard, remembers being torn about Starla’s riding. He was proud of his daughter being such a capable rider, but at the same time he felt the weight of a father’s worry about her safety.

“I didn’t want her to have a cycle,” he confided. After spending time in Harborview during his daughter’s recovery, Hilliard said he vowed never to ride a motorcycle again.

Starla’s parents helped her move in with them after her hospital stay, and she returned to her job as a sales agent for Matt Downing State Farm Insurance in Kalispell.

“He was such a blessing to us,” she said about Downing. “He really helped get our family through this.”

Starla was determined to regain her independence and through the help of family members was able to get a truck equipped with special controls to allow her to drive. During her rehabilitation she worked with Doug Betters of Whitefish, the former Miami Dolphins defensive end who was paralyzed by a skiing accident in 1998.

There were setbacks.

Not long after she returned to work she ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, then with an MRSA staph infection. The ups and downs of being a paraplegic never have deterred her, though.

“I’ve always felt from the beginning that there’s always someone who has it worse than I do,” she said. “I still have my arms. I can hug.”

Being pregnant and paralyzed also was a challenge. Starla was in and out of the hospital during the pregnancy, and the spasms she experienced caused her to fall out of her wheelchair multiple times.

“I broke my foot four times from the spasms,” she recalled. “She [baby Elissiah] kept trying to come early.”

Elissiah was delivered two months premature, weighing just 3 pounds, 12 ounces. The bubbly 19-month-old toddler now is able to help her wheelchair-bound mother with simple tasks such as bringing her the phone.

Everyday chores aren’t insurmountable for Starla, but they do require an inordinate amount of time. She wakes up six hours earlier than their daughter to complete her bowel program and shower.

A couple of years ago, right around the time she was falling in love with Shannon and getting married, Starla began to experience some feeling in her hips and legs.

“I fell out of my wheelchair and broke my toe, and I could feel the pain for the first time,” she said.

Because the damage to her spinal cord was considered “incomplete,” Starla has a 50-50 chance of one day walking again.

Her doctors prescribed walking braces for her, but they are a huge expense her insurance company won’t cover. They’re chipping away at $160,000 they still owe on a $1.7 million medical bill, most of which was covered by insurance.

The braces will cost about $16,000, and the out-of-state rehab will run somewhere around $80,000.

The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation’s Spinal Cord Injury Program in Kentucky and the Project Walk Spinal Cord Injury Recovery center in California are among the few programs that specialize in the kind of rehab Starla will need.

“We’ve sold everything we could to pay down the medical bill,” she said.

A friend, Kiralee Jones, has created a Facebook page for a fundraising campaign called Stand Up for Starla.

Starla’s future plans include becoming a motivational speaker and a mentor for other paraplegics.

“I can still help people. I feel very blessed,” she said. “I would like to do whatever I can, wherever doors are opened.”

Shannon said the message they have for others struggling with any kind of adversity is “use your circumstances to make yourself stronger rather than let them break you.

“We know we have an opportunity to change people’s lives,” he added.

Starla said a recent experience at a local discount store gave her insight into the Flathead’s compassion and generosity. A small boy overheard Starla talking about the braces she needed, and instead of using his quarter for a gumball as he’d intended, he brought the money to Starla.

“Will this buy your braces?” he asked.

Starla was deeply touched by the simple act of kindness.

“His smile was the most heartwarming thing.”

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com

Shannon Barnes kisses his wife during her wheelchair-bound pregnancy. Being paralyzed and pregnant was a challenge because  the spasms she experienced caused her to fall out of her wheelchair multiple times.

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