Vancouver runner finds her path after injury from random bullet

In August, Vancouver’s Alicia Nilo ran her first half-marathon in a year. Just six months earlier, she didn’t know if she’d be able to walk again without the assistance of a cane.

Nilo, 27, was struck in her left hip by a seemingly random bullet Oct. 21, 2021, while running along the Padden Parkway Trail — less than a mile from her home. At the time, she was training for the Columbia Gorge half-marathon that was three days away.

She spent the first month after the shooting mostly bedridden and in a wheelchair.

“That was really hard, because at that point, I knew it was early on. It was too early to tell, ‘Will I ever walk again?’ But I didn’t want to ask myself those questions because I didn’t want to be morbid yet,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “I knew I was going to live and that was enough. There was just a lot to be grateful for.”

Her leg felt perfectly fine, she said; after all, it was fit to run a half-marathon, but the muscles to control it felt like “the puppet strings had been cut.”

In March, after months of physical therapy — two to three times a week, plus daily at-home exercises — and graduating from a wheelchair to a walker to crutches to a cane, Nilo found a way to gain more mobility: in-line skating. It didn’t take much effort to propel herself forward or require weight-bearing.

“It was so liberating to have something like, ‘Well, if I don’t get any better, at least I have this.’ That was a huge moment of celebration for me,” Nilo said.

Skating twice a week, coupled with physical therapy, helped Nilo’s body remember how to walk on its own, she said. By May, she didn’t need the cane, unless there was a big shift in atmospheric pressure.

“I can walk again. I can run again. I can Rollerblade again. All the things that matter bounced back, and life is more or less the same as it was, which is great,” she said.

Nilo said when she started running again, she was careful not to make comparisons to her pre-injury self.

“Pre-bullet was not a feasible goal because it wasn’t the same body anymore. So starting from scratch, which was a good exercise for me mentally, because it helped me stop comparing myself to unrealistic standards and just really be appreciative of how powerful my hip had already become since getting injured.”

Being able to run a half-marathon again was the “ultimate cherry on top,” she said.

“That was so empowering,” Nilo said. “I gained more appreciation for my ability to move and my own strength.”

The bullet remains lodged deep in her body. Doctors said it would cause more nerve damage to try to retrieve it.

An unsolved crime

Since the shooting, Nilo continues to run along the Padden Parkway Trail. She even returned to it when she was in a wheelchair.

“I wasn’t going to let one very unfortunate day ruin my experience on that trail. I made it a point to go back and conquer it,” she said.

The Clark County Sheriff’s Office’s Tactical Detectives Unit investigated the shooting. After canvassing the area, investigators found what appeared to be a bullet hole through the front door and back side of a nearby storage unit. Investigators chased down surveillance video from the area but were unable to identify a suspect. The case was suspended in February, Sgt. Chris Skidmore said.

Around 4 p.m. that day, she was on a short, shakeout run before the half-marathon when she felt something strike her left hip. She initially thought it was kids with a slingshot, she said, but she looked around and didn’t see anyone. Then, she realized whatever had hit her had never bounced off.

That’s when she noticed a hole in her running clothes. She peeked under the layers and saw a hole in her skin.

“I immediately knew, ‘Oh, oh, that’s a bullet hole. Oh my gosh, OK,’” Nilo said, noting she grew up hunting.

Coincidentally, a Washington State Patrol trooper was a couple hundred yards away conducting a traffic stop. Nilo had taken note of him seconds before the shooting. She limped over to the trooper, and they took cover in a ditch as he called for backup.

A passerby, a nurse, saw Nilo on the side of the road and stopped. She helped stabilize her until the ambulance arrived.

“That was really moving and great to have so much surprise support right there in a moment of need,” Nilo said.

The bullet entered through her hip, missing her spine and pelvic vitals, and was mostly absorbed by muscle.

“One of my first thoughts after it happened was, ‘It’s a big sky. Of all the places for it to land, it landed on a small person going on a run,’” Nilo said.

Everything in Nilo’s life lurched to a halt. At the time, she was working full-time, enrolled in graduate school, volunteering for a number of organizations and serving on a couple of boards.

“There’s a lot of stuff I always told myself I’d get around to doing one day. Especially after being forced to stop in my tracks and withdraw from a lot of extra commitments I had made, it really forced me to go through deep introspection: What are your priorities, how do you want to live your life, how do you want to spend your days?”