“Courage is being scared to death, but saddling up anyway!”
– John Wayne
Christmas came and went for 42-year-old Kenny Armond, and like every Christmas since 2005, he sat in his living room in the gift handed to him by Hurricane Katrina: a wheelchair.
“It really doesn’t matter when Kenny walks again,” said Ken’s father, Terry Armond, a retiree who’s just about always at his son’s side. “Because believe me, Kenny is going to walk again. And when he does, that day will be Christmas! I don’t care if it’s August. It’s going to be Christmas!”
With that, Armond helps his son out of the therapy pool at the gym and towels him off. The afternoon sun is setting, but there’s still a lot of therapy ahead for Kenny when the two men arrive at home: parallel bars, pulling forward in those heavy leg braces and stretching … always stretching. Kenny Armond’s torturous routine will go on late into the night.
And it is during those nights that sometimes the nightmare of his days before and after Hurricane Katrina comes flooding back into his mind.
“Those thoughts used to scare me,” Kenny says. “But now they only make me more determined. I’m determined to walk again; and I will!”
Aug. 20, 2005: Tooling down a rough highway outside Picayune, Miss., Kenny Armond was pushing himself;
fighting to stay awake having slept only six hours over the past week, as his job as a refrigeration technician kept him on the go. Armond dozed off and suddenly his truck was flipping again and again and again along that Mississippi highway. The crash was so tumultuous that his seatbelt was torn from the floor and he was thrown through a window, never to walk to this day.
“I had surgery on Aug. 24,” Armond says. “On Friday, they sent me to Touro for rehab. On Monday, all hell broke loose. Hurricane Katrina hit! I was only seven days out of major surgery and still had the staples in my back. By Wednesday, the water was rising fast all around the hospital and they evacuated us from the ninth floor to the third floor helicopter landing pad.”
Armond seemed a forgotten man for five days and nights on that rooftop, as he sat upright in a wheelchair with blood and pus oozing from his back. The sun baked down on him during the day and the cold night air froze him. During those nights, gunshots were heard all over the Uptown neighborhood and bullets whizzed past the helicopter pad.
The original crowd of some 300 men and women who evacuated to the emergency-landing pad thinned out as one died here, another there.
“I sat in that chair for five days unable to move much,” Armond says. “We were all packed in like sardines. The smell was horrible and there was moaning all around. The nurses that were with us … they were fantastic! I can’t say enough about them. They did everything they could possibly do for the men and women who were trapped up there – and then some. Every now and then somebody would go down into the building to try to scavenge up some food.
They mostly came back with grits. But it kept us alive. I had my fill of grits. I haven’t eaten grits since then. One man got downstairs and waded in the water and broke into an ice machine somewhere and came back with bags of ice.
We let them melt so we could have drinking water. I’m telling you the things people did on that pad to stay alive.”
On Sunday night, after five days made agonizing by a badly infected surgical wound down his back and being strapped upright in a wheelchair, Kenny Armond was helped aboard an evacuation helicopter and strapped in.
“The pilot told me that the takeoff was going to be rough because there were fools down there on the ground who were shooting at evacuation helicopters,” Armond says. “He actually apologized for having to take off in such a hurry and with such a jolt. Then he said, ‘After the takeoff, I promise you a smooth ride.’ It was around 4 a.m. and as we took off I could see the flashes from the guns down on the ground. But that pilot got us out of there safely and once up in the air, he kept his word.
“We had to drop a lady off at a hospital in Lafayette because she was bleeding internally. They were going to leave me there but told me there would be a long wait until I got a room. I was bleeding and infected. At that point, I just couldn’t go through anything like that. We went on to a hospital in Alexandria. I made it. I survived. But man, what a ride!”
Kenny Armond closes his eyes and shakes his head slowly as if to erase that “week in Hell” as he calls it. His father helps him slide from his wheelchair to a chair in an anteroom of the therapy pool from which he has just emerged.
The balls of his feet are on the carpeted floor and he’s bouncing his legs quickly up and down.
“Look at youuuuuuuu,” says a therapist as she walks past Armond and smiles at him. “Way to go!”
“My dad and my mom do so much for me,” Armond says. “They drive me to doctors appointments, to therapy, to the grocery, to get prescriptions. They help me with my exercise – 10 hours a day, seven days a week I exercise. It’s all part of me now. It’s part of my determination. It’s agony; I’ve got to say that. I take a lot of pain pills, but after a while, you get immune to them. The pain is always there when I’m exercising. But I can’t stop. If I stop, that means I’m throwing in the towel. I’m never going to do that.”
The physical pain is only part of it. Other than a small disability check and $48 a month in food stamps, Kenny Armond receives no other funds. His mother still works, but “luxury” is a word that’s never used around his household.
“Right now my leg braces are broken,” Kenny Armond says. “We’ve repaired them so many times, I don’t think they can be repaired any more. When a gear goes out on them it costs about $500 to replace. We just can’t afford that. Those braces are sitting in the corner right now until I can pull enough money together to have them fixed. But I‘m not complaining.”
In the face of it all, friends and relatives to this day marvel at the lack of bitterness in a young man whose life was turned upside down just like that truck nearly five years ago.
“I’ve grown a great deal in here,” Kenny Armond says as he taps his chest with a finger. “I think I’ve become a better person. Bitterness? What good what that do? Naw, that’s for losers. When something like this happens, you gotta keep pushin’. You gotta keep goin’! Ya know, a friend of mine said, if God came down and gave me a choice which would I choose: I could walk again and go back to being the same person I was before this all happened or stay in the wheelchair and remain the person I’ve become. I just looked at him and told him I would never go back to what I was.”
Terry Armond places a hand on one of his son’s still jiggling legs.
“He’s going to walk again,” the elder Armond says. “I promise you that.”