"I think of what Austin has to go through: a lifetime of hurdles because one person did not take the time to put a gun out of kids’ reach. If his story can help just one kid, that would be huge," said Adam Stokes, Austin's father.
On Jan. 30, 2011, 12-year-old Austin Stokes went over to his neighbor friend’s house to play. His friend had returned from duck hunting with his father the day before.
Instead of securing or locking up their weapons, the neighbors left them sitting in the corner of the family room — still loaded. The neighbor friend picked up the shotgun, aimed it at Austin and pulled the trigger. FOX 12 Oregon said police confirmed that the friend wanted to frighten Austin by handling the gun.
That one act completely devastated the Stokes family.
In a split second the family went from happy, healthy and whole to desperate and heartsick.
Austin spent 102 days in the hospital and underwent three skull surgeries. He has more scheduled in the future. He had a shunt placed in his head to drain spinal fluid which will remain there for the rest of his life.
Austin has had to relearn everything.
To his parents it has seemed like a rebirth of a new son whom they have had to teach to walk, talk, eat and dress.
“It’s as if one day you have a 12-year-old young man and the next day a 3-year-old boy," said Adam Stokes, Austin's father. "You love them both, but they’re two different people. I miss my other son, too, and I just wish I could have had the chance to say goodbye to the old Austin.”
In October 2011, a prosthetic skull was placed into Austin’s head, allowing him to finally return to school the following November with a full-time assistant. With that skull there was no longer the constant worry that he would fall and damage his vulnerable, unprotected brain.
It was a positive step for the family and a sense of a “new normal” was beginning to emerge. However, due to a serious infection, the prosthetic skull was removed less than a year after it had been implanted.
In the near future, Austin will have at least two surgeries where doctors will take portions of his ribs to replace the prosthetic skull. Until then, Austin has to be supervised and wear a helmet nearly 24 hours a day to protect his exposed brain. He must be administered life-preserving medicine around the clock.
In terms of Austin’s ability to mainstream into a school setting, this has also been a disappointing set back for the family. They are again faced with in-home tutors, multiple doctor visits and weekly physical therapy appointments which are more than an hour drive from their home.
In every way the Stokes family has been exhausted. Shelly Stokes, Austin's mother, wakes up every morning and goes to her full-time job, while Adam stays home and cares for his son. When she returns home from work, Adam departs for his full-time job and Shelly assumes the role of caregiver.
Financially, the Stokes family has been devastated with the ever-mounting medical bills and medication costs. This family’s life has been completely altered.
The details make one shudder, but what does a person take away from this tragic story? Gun safety.
“I want to take Austin’s situation and get the word out to people to lock up their guns around kids," Adam Stokes said. "Don’t get me wrong, I do not mean gun control. I just want people to be safer."
Adam said, "Way too many kids have gotten hurt or killed by people who are not being safe. I am going to try my hardest to help other people hear this message so they do not have to go through what we have or even worse. Please help me get the word out and let’s make the world a safer place for kids."
According to KATU News, Jeremiah Riley spent 5 days in Juvenile Hall after the shooting. Riley's family may have to pay $100,000 in restitution for the Stokes' medical expenses. Riley's parents cannot be held criminally responsible for their son's actions, according to Oregon law.
A fund has been set up to help the Stokes family, “The Austin Stokes Fund for Ongoing Medical Treatment."
Shannon is a graduate of the University of Oregon and a frazzled mother of five. Correspondence is welcomed at [email protected].