Chyna Sands was working the night shift as a registered nurse at Jewish Hospital when she received word that her daughter, Onyx, had been shot.
It’s the kind of call no parent really expects. This was the same daughter who just celebrated her sixth birthday with a bustling pool party, filled with family and friends, only a few days earlier. The same 6-year-old who, the last that Sands knew, was supposed to be enjoying a day at the park with her father.
But because of a road rage shooting on Interstate 65, Onyx Sands was at Norton Children’s Hospital, being prepped for surgery. The last time Onyx had been in a hospital as a patient was when she was born.
Immediate medical attention revealed a bullet severed her spinal cord. Onyx, who loved doing Tik Tok dances and was looking forward to trying gymnastics, is now paralyzed from the waist down.
Chyna remembers the immediate time after the shooting in a collection of sleepless nights. During one of those nights, while keeping an eye on the vital signs of her daughter in the hospital bed, Chyna was on the phone with their complex’s property management to request a new unit.
They had moved into Chyna’s “dream apartment” just a number of weeks before this. Except there was one thing wrong with it now. It was on the second floor.
As Chyna describes it, gun violence in Louisville used to be an “out of sight, out of mind” issue for her. Now, it permeates the reality of her day-to-day life and Onyx’s future.
“I had the ‘It can’t happen to me’ type of mindset. You know, I stay out of trouble. I go to work. I come home. I take care of my kids. We do family friendly things. You know, that type of thing won’t affect me. But it can and it did. And it can affect anyone and it can be anywhere,” Chyna said. “She was on a highway leaving a park.”
Gun violence still shakes Louisville family two months later
On July 10, 2023, Onyx was in a car with her father driving on northbound Interstate 65 when their vehicle became involved in an altercation with three motorcyclists, resulting in shots being fired. The incident, in total, spanned eight miles from Outer Loop toward Ninth Street, court documents show. One round struck Onyx in the back by one round.
Shelby Bisconer, 33, and Edward Sark, 22, felony charges of wanton endangerment in the case. Sark also faces an additional charge of assault. A third person, 33-year-old Jonathan Rivera, was indicted in July on gun charges related to the shooting.
About two months since the shooting, Chyna and Onyx Sands are still adjusting.
Chyna wakes her daughter in the middle of the night to physically turn her body, ensuring Onyx won’t have bedsores. She’s had to persuade Onyx to take nasty-tasting medicine, watch her wince as she is prodded with needles, and explain high-level concepts like phantom pain to her.
Onyx meets with a Jefferson County Public Schools employee for her first grade lessons and dreams about going back to school to see her friends. She’s already started to think about how she’s going to introduce herself to new people.
“The other day, we were getting into the car and she said, ‘Hey, my name is Onyx and I’m stuck in a wheelchair.’ You know, how do you respond to that, to your 6-year-old child?” Chyna said.
On Thursday, Onyx was in high spirits, sporting a pink unicorn on her shirt and colorful butterfly clips in her hair. She’d just come back from outpatient therapy, which she attends two to three times a week. This time, they played “Hungry Wolf,” where she learns how to move around in her wheelchair.
Onyx likes to do little wheelies in her chair as well as showcase her strength, lifting herself up and counting to 10 in an exercise to make sure blood flow travels throughout her lower half. She also loves shopping at Target with her mom, playing with Barbie dolls and seeing her friends — especially those she made in in-patient rehabilitation therapy.
“The media still sees Onyx as strong and still happy and she’s brave. And all of those things are very true,” her mother said. “But there are also times when reality hits Onyx and she is a 6-year-old who is scared, who has had a life-altering event happen to her, who has questions, who gets angry, who gets sad. So we deal with those things on the daily.”
Their new life continues to be a navigation. While she always tries to be a beacon of strength and optimism for her daughter, there are some days she doesn’t know what to say. Recently, they attended a benefit where performers were dancing and Onyx started crying.
“When she saw those people dancing, she broke down. She’s crying because, you know, ‘Mommy, I want to get up and dance.’ And I’m like ‘Why, Onyx, you can still dance in your chair.’ She’s like, ‘I don’t want to dance in my chair. I want to dance the normal way,'” Chyna said. “And so we kind of both had a breakdown right there.”
Mother turns advocate, hoping story will change Kentucky gun laws
Since the shooting, Chyna Sands has become an advocate for state gun law reform.
“No way should we have as many children as we have being affected by gun violence and have life-changing events happen at the hands of careless adults,” she said. “That is everyone’s responsibility.”
A study published in August by the American Academy of Pediatrics found that 4,752 children died from gun-related injuries in 2021. According to a 2023 analysis report by the Pew Research Center, the number of children and teens killed by gunfire in the U.S. increased 50% between 2019 and 2021.
“The other little children in our circle are now asking ‘Well, am I gonna get shot?'” Chyna Sands said. “Now they’ve seen it happen to someone they’re close with and it’s almost normalized, like ‘Oh, OK, so kids can get shot.'”
Kentucky law does not require a state permit to possess a shotgun, handgun or rifle. Kentucky is also an open carry state, allowing anyone 18 years of age or older to carry a firearm in most places. Anyone who is 21 or older and eligible to own a firearm can carry a concealed weapon.
Chyna, who had to take a class for her own concealed carry license before the law was changed in 2019, believes there should be an educational component to possessing a firearm.
“You need to put in the time and the effort to show that you’re willing to learn about this material, this weapon that you have, in order to have one,” Chyna said.
There also needs to be stricter requirements for those who can possess firearms as well as stricter punishments for those who mishandle their weapon, she said.
Chyna said she plans to pen an open letter to state leaders about Onyx’s story in hopes it will fuel change.
In the meantime, life goes on for her and her daughter. Chyna will soon have to return to work, prompting concern over who will care for Onyx during that time.
“All the people who I would trust to do this, they also have to go to work,” Chyna said.
A GoFundMe campaign remains open and has raised over $24,000. But Chyna is praying for something like a miracle.
“I just would love for her to be able to get that sensation back and be up and walking. She’s 6,” Chyna said. “She has her whole life ahead of her.”
Reach reporter Rachel Smith firstname.lastname@example.org or @RachelSmithNews on X, formerly known as Twitter.