A New Sense of Identity

By Laura Gang on December 27, 2022

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A drive-by shooting altered the life trajectory of two young PUC alumni. Now, Carla and Daniel Monnier are finding purpose amid a new set of challenges.

Boy Scout Road is a rural stretch in Apopka, Florida.

Groves of orange trees stand in contrast to their neighbors – unruly throngs of trees that push past property lines and creep over the road’s shoulder.

Live oaks, tinseled with tufts of Spanish moss spread their wide limbs behind slim-trunked pines. A grizzled palm stands tall even while a coil of kudzu threatens to climb its way to the top.

Every once in a while there’s a clearing, where driveways lead to tired single-story ranch houses.

Carla Monnier took this road home from work every day.

She didn’t live there. It was a shortcut between Orlando’s busy highways and southwest Apopka’s modern and serene neighborhoods where she and her husband Daniel lived.

On a Thursday night in mid-October 2018, Carla had finally finished work at the rehab center. Dinner plans with her friend Mollie hadn’t worked out. So she got into her car and began the nearly 20-minute commute home.

Shortly before Carla exited the highway to take her shortcut, Mollie called and they began discussing training plans for an upcoming Ironman race.

Boy Scout Road was dark. There were no streetlights. Carla was just 2 minutes from home when without warning, a car bolted out from a mass of trees and onto the road facing her. Carla braked. She saw flashes. She heard bullets piercing metal and glass. She pulled the steering wheel and swerved right. It took a minute for her to realize what was happening.

“Mollie,” she said frantically, “someone is shooting at me!”

Only one round mattered. A single high-caliber bullet breached the driver’s side door and entered the left side of Carla’s chest, right below her heart. The next few moments syruped into slow motion.

She could see her phone, now flung on the dashboard, lit up in the darkness with Mollie’s name on the screen.

She heard her friend's distant voice. “Carla, what is happening? Are you okay?” She couldn’t reach for her phone. She couldn’t answer.

The very last thing she did was turn her head to watch the unknown assailant’s car speed off and disappear into the night.

Cars passed by periodically.  Each pair of headlights briefly illuminated the motionless car near the side of the road. No one stopped. No one realized inside there was a young woman fighting for her life.

A Journey Starting at PUC

This is not just a story about a drive-by shooting. It’s a story about reckoning. About facing circumstances with honesty and vulnerability.

It’s a story about teamwork. About perseverance that leads to resilience.

For Carla and Daniel Monnier, it’s also a story about how Oct. 18, 2018, is the dividing line between identities.

It’s a story that begins at Pacific Union College.

Carla Bartlett, unlike some freshmen, came to PUC in 2008 confident in who she was. Carla was an athlete.

At Mesa Grande Academy in Calimesa, California, Carla was an All-Victory League player in volleyball, softball and basketball. But her favorite was basketball.

She joined the PUC Pioneers women’s basketball team and logged the most minutes on the court of any player in just her first year. Although she gave it her all, it was a tough season. The Pioneers finished with just 1 win and 23 losses.

But Carla didn’t give up. She worked harder. During the offseason, she improved her game and her physical fitness. The 5-foot-4-inch point guard began her sophomore year as team captain.

“She’s one of the best players I’ve ever had,” then-Coach George Barcenas told The Weekly Calistogan in 2010. “She has a head for the game.”

Carla said she became a smarter player. Success depended on teamwork. Yes, she scored the most points in nearly every game. But that wasn’t her goal. For her, it was the assists.

“That’s what means more to me,” she told the Napa Valley Register in 2011. “The assists are definitely more valuable to me because they help your teammates get better.”

In her four years on the Pioneers, she set school records for points, assists and steals. Those records still stand at PUC to this day.

Carla, an exercise science and pre-physical therapy major, helped manage PUC’s fitness center. One evening as she was closing up, there was one guy still in the gym practicing free throws. It was Daniel Monnier, one of her twin brother’s friends. She asked him if he was considering trying out for the basketball team. That sparked a conversation that continued as they walked out and then later on Facebook Messenger.

Daniel came to PUC from Bakersfield Adventist Academy. A business major, he also loved playing sports. Daniel stood at 6 foot, 3 inches and ended up trying out for the Pioneers and making the team.

Daniel and Carla were energetic and fun. He knew how to make her laugh. But they had three other major things in common - they valued their independence, they loved sports, and they were fiercely competitive.

Once they started dating, they often found themselves on opposite intramural teams. Carla’s team would always win. Daniel said it almost caused them to break up multiple times. In a championship Ultimate Frisbee game, they faced off and Carla scored six touchdowns. “I’m not going to lie,” Daniel said. “I was mad.”

After graduating in 2012, Carla attended physical therapy school at Loma Linda University.

A year later, Daniel finished his bachelor’s degree and took a job working for AdventHealth in the Orlando area. Carla and Daniel maintained their relationship over long distances for nearly three years.

Then in 2014, Daniel proposed and the couple married in a ceremony presided over by their fathers at Azure Hills Seventh-day Adventist Church in Grand Terrace, California.

The couple moved to Florida and Carla committed herself to her work as a physical therapist as Daniel continued moving up the ranks in the administration of AdventHealth.

They loved their careers. They had a lot of friends. They were active in service, volunteering with youth in their church. Though neither of them posted regularly on social media, when they did, they sometimes liked to poke playful fun at each other and themselves. A regular star in their photos is their little dog, Brody.

One could easily imagine the trajectory of their life story. More traveling and activities together. Shooting hoops on the driveway as a family. Advancing in their careers.

Then came the night of Oct. 18, 2018.

A Fateful Day and Recovery Ahead

That morning, Carla and Daniel didn’t have to leave early for work. Carla’s first patient wasn’t until later. Both independent, they did their separate morning routines.

As they walked out to their cars, Daniel reminded Carla that he had a city league basketball game at the Winter Park Community Center that evening.

“Why don’t you come?” he asked. Carla said she had to meet a friend for dinner. They were meeting to discuss training plans for an upcoming triathlon.

After the game that evening, Daniel went to collect his things and noticed two missed calls from his buddy Carl.

“That was weird,” he remembers thinking. “This generation, we don’t call people. We text.”

Daniel returned his friend’s call and when Carl answered, he noted the tremor in his voice. “Hey man, Mollie was on the phone with Carla. Something weird is happening. Mollie heard a few pops in the background and Carla moaning.”

Daniel told Carl the route his wife usually took home and hung up. He immediately called Carla.

No answer.

He grabbed a friend who was also at the game and asked him to follow him.

Carl and Mollie called 911. Operators pinged Carla’s phone and sent first responders to Boy Scout Road.

When Daniel arrived, the police had the whole area blocked. They wouldn’t let Daniel through and would only confirm a woman had been shot.

Daniel waited for over an hour. Finally, an officer told him Carla was awake, that she was conscious and talking. They told him not to leave until they’d had a chance to speak with him.

Carla was taken by ambulance to Orlando Regional Medical Center. On the way there she fell unconscious.

Daniel didn’t wait to speak to the police and raced to the hospital instead. On the way, he called Carla’s parents and other family members.  He texted close friends and asked them to pray. He still didn’t have much information.

When he arrived, police ushered him into a room and asked him to write down everything he had done that day. He wrote about the budget spreadsheets. The Jimmy John’s sandwich at lunch. The basketball game.

Meanwhile, police combed through his texts and photos on his phone. With no suspect, they had to check everyone close to Carla because shootings like this were often domestic.

In hindsight, Daniel said he’s thankful for the interrogation because it meant he didn’t have to sit alone with the unknown. But eventually, they were done and he waited, feeling helpless - his mind full of questions.

He put his face in his hands and prayed, “Jesus, please. I don’t know what to say, but you know my request. Please.”

After what seemed like an eternity, a detective told Daniel that Carla made it through emergency surgery and was resting in the ICU. Relief flooded through him. Carla was alive.

But he wasn't prepared for what he saw when he entered the room.

There was Carla. Eyes closed. Her face barely visible. A tube in her mouth, held tight by winged bandages across her upper lip and cheeks. Her forearms, encased in braces, lay on pillows supporting her sides. A large cervical collar held her neck in place. Tubes, lines, leads and drains branched out from her body. Nearby, machines hissed and monitors beeped. Her athletic legs, the ones that ran races and sprung from the court in jump shots, lay still.

Nearly four years later, Daniel recalls the moment with vivid clarity. “It’s the worst thing you could ever imagine,” he said. “The person you care for most just clinging to life.”

What didn’t seem real, suddenly hit home.

“I couldn’t stay there. I could not be in the room with her,” he told me recently. “I couldn’t. I just …”

He looked down and swallowed hard.

“I’m sorry,” he said after a minute. “It's just that image always gets me.”

When he had a minute to collect himself and return, doctors peppered Daniel with information and questions about critical decisions. The bullet that struck Carla had done serious damage. The surgeon removed her left kidney, her left adrenal gland and her spleen. He also did partial pancreas, colon and stomach resections.

But worst of all, she had T10-T12 vertebrae fractures and a possible T6 spinal cord injury.

A day later, Carla, still heavily sedated, wasn’t yet aware of Daniel’s presence there at the hospital. Before they wheeled her off to the operating room for a second risky surgery, Daniel took her hand and whispered in her ear, “Carla I love you so much. Keep fighting. I’ll always love you.”

As he went to step away, Carla squeezed his hand. She heard him. She loved him too.

Hours later, Daniel, family and friends cheered. The surgery had been successful. Another major surgery a few days later also proved successful. But there was difficult news ahead.

A neurologist ran tests on Carla. The bullet had struck her spinal cord and caused major swelling. Carla was still intubated and sedated, but the neurologist could record her reactions. He began to ask if she could feel various touchpoints. She couldn’t. Even though she was sedated and her eyes were closed, tears began to roll down her cheeks.

Carla is classified as a T6 paraplegic. It’s a complete injury, meaning she has no feeling or control from the high part of her waist down.

Eventually, her other injuries became manageable, so the focus turned to Carla’s spinal cord injury and the hard work necessary for her to become as strong and independent as possible. She took a medical plane to the Shepherd Center, a renowned spinal cord rehabilitation center in Atlanta.

By Thanksgiving, just over a month after the shooting, Carla was able to be with family and friends outside of a medical facility to celebrate together. In December, even left the rehab center for several days. She and her family had Christmas together. Carla and Daniel had a date night on their four-year anniversary.

She continued her rehab in Atlanta, and as Carla became stronger, she and Daniel began to visualize a new normal and felt hopeful about the future.

But in early January, Daniel got a call from Carla’s sister Chelsea saying that she’d been admitted to the hospital in Atlanta for sepsis.

Daniel said this is when he started to get angry. “How could God allow this to happen after everything Carla had already been through? If I’m being completely honest, I’m still a bit angry,” he said. “Carla is such a beautiful person. She leads a selfless life in complete service of others.”

He played out scenario after scenario in his mind. How could this random and senseless act of violence happen? Couldn’t God have intervened sooner?

He felt that sense of helplessness again. “I can’t do anything to help her to walk and I don’t have answers for why any of this happened.”

“Carla brings me back,” Daniel said. “I’m supposed to be the rock for her, but she steadies me.”

On July 13, 2019, nearly eight months later, Carla and Daniel shared their testimony together at Florida Hospital Seventh-day Adventist Church. In a message called “God Is our Help,” they talked about how the shooting changed their lives and how it impacted their spiritual lives.

“Jesus didn’t come to heal us physically. Although He did a lot of healing while He was here, His mission was to heal us spiritually,” Carla said. “Every person here has experienced pain and suffering. As much as I want Jesus to heal me physically and as much as I want to walk again, that isn’t Jesus’ priority. He came down to this Earth to make sure that we spend eternity with Him in heaven. The reality is, He cares so much more about my soul than my legs.”

A month later, Carla underwent two more surgeries. One was to remove the bullet in her back. The second was for an obstruction. She posted on Facebook about the operations and how these painful setbacks have made her weary.

“To be honest,” Carla wrote. “I’m tired of having to be tough. It seems as though the setbacks I have had caused a lot of physical pain and it has been truly draining emotionally as well. Please pray that it only goes up from here.”

On Daniel’s birthday, she posted about his selflessness and his life’s purpose to make her feel happy and loved. He wasn’t the man of her dreams, she wrote, he was so much more.

One year after the night that changed their lives forever, Daniel wrote an update thanking everyone for their love and support.

“Carla and I are happy,” he wrote. “We push forward together as a vehicle for Jesus as He sees fit. This will be the last update regarding Carla’s progress. Barring anything unforeseen, everything moving forward will be life as usual.”

Finding Purpose Amid Unanswered Questions

I first heard about Carla and Daniel’s story last spring. I wondered what life was like for them now. Had they found their new normal? Had there been anything unexpected?

Carla was now the youth pastor for WholeLife Church in Orlando. Daniel continued his work as a director of operations at AdventHealth. Carla and Daniel graciously agreed to an interview in August.

But shortly before we were set to speak, I received a message from Carla saying she had been admitted to the hospital.  Doctors hadn’t yet been able to figure out why. We postponed the interview.

A few days later, on Aug. 16, Daniel posted on Facebook that he didn’t have good news.

“This weekend, Carla was diagnosed with Acute Promyelocytic Leukemia,” he wrote. “Physicians have told us this is unrelated to any prior medical issues.”

He expressed their shock – and dismay – after all Carla had overcome and asked for support and prayers.

In September, I was able to meet with Carla and Daniel via Microsoft Teams. How had the recent diagnosis affected them both and how does the latest challenge fit into the context of the drive-by shooting, a clear dividing line for the couple? (Carla refers to life before Oct. 18 as “before my injury.” Daniel says, “before Carla’s incident.”)

During the early part of her rehabilitation, a therapist had predicted she’d be fully independent within six months. Carla, intrinsically goal-oriented, fixed that point in her mind. With determination, she learned to do everyday tasks again like getting dressed by herself and tackled more difficult ones like transferring from her wheelchair unaided. She also learned to drive again.

It actually took nearly a year to achieve these goals. But Carla is pragmatic, and much of her success is rooted in that.  She overcame these obstacles with the same persistence she used on the court at Pacific Union College in leading the Pioneers to new heights.

Despite all she and Daniel have faced, they still smile and laugh easily, although they are admittedly a bit less competitive than they were at PUC.

Yet, they speak honestly even about the difficult moments and the unanswered questions. They don’t hide from things. They are humble.

I began by asking them about the leukemia diagnosis.

They said statistically APL is one of the most curable cancers. In fact, Carla is already considered in remission. But she is still undergoing treatments and must limit her contact with people.

Though she is connected virtually, the people Carla misses most are the high school students in her youth group at the church.

After Carla’s spinal cord injury, she still worked for AdventHealth rehabilitation, but instead of seeing patients, she did administrative and reporting duties.

“I wasn’t getting fulfillment from the admin stuff,” Carla said. “It was just a job.”

Then she got a call from Pastor Jeff Cinquemani asking her to do a summer program for the high school students at WholeLife Church.

Carla worked part-time for the entire summer with the teen group. When summer ended, the church asked her to be the full-time youth pastor.

It was a difficult decision for Carla to completely change careers, particularly when she’d invested so much time and money to get her degree.

“But ultimately it worked out,” she said, “because it’s so much fun! The kids we have are just really great kids.”

During the school year, they do one vespers and one social event a month. Carla said the summers are busier with activities like roller skating, game nights and visits to water parks. They had recently started a girls’ group that planned to have monthly tea parties, but that had to stop since the leukemia diagnosis.

She took twelve weeks off and now is working for the church part-time doing what she can behind the scenes.

Carla still works for the rehab center a few hours a week to maintain her physical therapy license and co-teaches a class at AdventHealth University.

All of this must be done from a distance. Carla is immunocompromised, making it difficult to plan for the future.

“We had created a new identity for ourselves, and we truly felt like life was normal again,” Daniel said. “We had a trip planned to go to London next month. … We were looking into - I’m just being honest here - different options for kids. We were getting back to the point we were before her initial injury, but then the leukemia diagnosis happens, and now it feels like we’re back to living day by day. We can’t look past May at this point.”

That’s his perspective, and he said Carla may feel different.

“I think I’ve stopped expecting much,” she said. “So in some ways, you’re grateful for the day-to-day at times.”

Do they feel angry?

Carla said surprisingly she doesn’t feel angry about the leukemia diagnosis, the spinal cord injury or even the shooter.

“I’m actually really happy I don’t know who it was and that they didn’t catch him because I don’t have a face or person to be really mad at.”

Carla believes that it has to do with the anointing in the hospital after her spinal cord injury. “It was never about physical recovery,” she said. “It was about mental and spiritual recovery. There’s no other explanation other than the anointing, the Holy Spirit.”

Still, she struggles, especially with the new diagnosis.

It's hard to understand what God is doing when she’s given so much of her life to service. First, as a physical therapist. Then she had her spinal cord injury.  Next, she threw herself into her pastoral work. Then leukemia.

“It’s hard to rectify that,” she said.

Daniel admitted he’s had moments of anger.

“The leukemia diagnosis really felt like deja vu in so many ways,” he said. “I sometimes feel like ‘God, you know I love you, but I need some time. Just need some space.’”

I asked Carla what she felt was the most misunderstood aspect of her life now.

“I think people automatically assume that a spinal cord injury means you just can’t walk,” she told me. “That’s just the tip of the iceberg. It’s never being able to fully sit down and really relax - enjoy what’s around you.”

She has to stay vigilant. How much water did she drink? When was the last time she shifted her weight? Does that parking spot leave enough space for her car’s ramp? Did she remember to bring a spray bottle during Florida’s hot weather? Her legs no longer sweat.

Everyday tasks just take longer.

And Carla must deal with how others interact with her. Some want to push her wheelchair. Others simply want to know what happened, rather than get to know her.

“I don’t mind sharing about what happened,” she said. “But what I don’t like is people just asking ‘what happened?’ or ‘why are you in a wheelchair?’ before they even attempt to get to know me as a person.”

“They’re just satiating their own curiosity,” Daniel said.

There are a growing number of people with disabilities who cringe about being labeled “an inspiration” for those who are able-bodied. When I posed this question, Daniel immediately  answered, “Carla is an inspiration.”

“People always ask me about Carla’s physical state, but they ask me other stuff, too,” he said. “How’s her emotional state? How’s her mental state?”

“She’s doing great,” he said. “It’s actually the reverse. I have to lean on her.”

Carla does her best work on assists.

“I would rather be known as an inspiration for the work that I do or the relationships that I have rather than having survived being shot,” she said.

Becoming an activist, a motivational speaker or creating a blog or social media account that chronicles her life is not on Carla’s agenda. She recently deactivated her Instagram account and is considering doing the same with Facebook.

“I just want to have genuine relationships with people,” she told me.

Carla said in order to talk about what she and Daniel enjoy together now, you have to preface it by going back to the before. Before that October night, Carla and Daniel were driven by their career identities. They had a strong marriage, but they were also very independent.

Now they enjoy simpler things - having a meal together, enjoying a show together, going to a park, or meeting friends once a week for dinner.

Carla got into physical therapy to help improve people’s quality of life.

“So when I stopped treating patients it was hard for me to feel a sense of purpose,” she said.

She considers what she does now as still helping to improve the quality of life for others. It just looks different.

“The students at our church really are an exceptional group,” Carla said. “They really are fun to be around and it has given me my sense of purpose back.”