Monday, Dec. 31, 2007 | 1:31 a.m.
Kathy Urbanski woke from a nightmare, struggling to breathe.
She had been dreaming about the night when her husband, Tom, almost died after being shot at the Minxx strip club.
Her chest felt tight, as if her lungs were filling with fluid. "It felt like there was a vise on my heart," she says.
She needed to get to the emergency room, but Tom was left paralyzed by the shooting. It would be hours before a nurse arrived to lift him out of bed, help him dress and get him into his wheelchair.
Kathy Urbanski needed medical help now.
"Tommy was very upset and was crying because he wanted to take me to the emergency room and he couldn't," she says. "He wanted to be able to take care of me like I have been taking care of him."
She drove herself to the emergency room, where doctors said her chest pains were a result of exhaustion, situational depression and grieving.
Nightmare became reality for the Urbanskis in the early hours of Feb. 19, the final night of the NBA All-Star Weekend. A melee at the strip club, where Tom Urbanski worked as a bouncer, ended with a bullet lodged in his ninth thoracic vertebra.
In the 10 months since the shooting, Urbanski has undergone eight surgeries and gone through five months of physical and occupational therapy at Craig Hospital, a spinal cord injury rehabilitation facility in Denver.
Kathy Urbanski shared it all.
She stayed by his side every day in Denver until her 12 weeks of family leave ran out. She returned to Las Vegas to teach second graders - the family's remaining source of income. To stay with Tom as much possible, she taught all week, flew back to Denver every Friday night and back to Las Vegas on Sunday nights in time to start the school week again.
"I can't say that I have had a carefree moment since this has happened," Kathy Urbanski says. "Getting through the day is exhausting."
Lester Butt, chairman of the psychology department at Craig Hospital, says, "Catastrophic injury, spinal cord injury specifically, impacts everyone who loves the person who was injured. So in their own idiosyncratic, personalized way, everyone is injured."
Tom Urbanski had progressed enough to return to Las Vegas in late August, but the renovations to make their south Las Vegas home disabled accessible haven't begun. The Urbanskis are living temporarily at a Residence Inn.
The couple, who have been married for nine years, are struggling to adjust. They are grateful for the eight-plus hours a day that nurses attend to Tom's medical needs, but that takes its toll in a lack of privacy. When the nurses aren't there, Kathy Urbanski can't get much sleep because Tom must turn every four hours to prevent pressure sores, often waking her.
"You can't have an off day because there is too much riding on it," she says. "There is no balance. I want to do the right thing for the kids. I want them to get the best education they can. It just never ends between teaching and going back, and the nursing duties."
The stress is testing their marriage as well.
"It's going to strain any relationship," she says. "At the same time I feel like because I almost lost him I appreciate him so much more, but I don't know how it's going to be long term."
They knock heads at times, Tom Urbanski says, fighting about silly things.
He has daily ups and downs adjusting to the new routine, therapy and medical issues that come with a spinal cord injury - pressure sores and bladder and bowel issues. But in general, he grows more optimistic and focuses on the present and future.
"I'm not going to lie and say there aren't days that I sit here and it hits me. I get upset and I'll cry. It gets to me," he says. "But then, you know, you get over it and you feel good afterward and you cry it out and then I realize everything I've got to live for. I got a great wife and a good home and great friends and a family, so you just move on."
Psychologists say it's often easier for the person who is injured to develop a "hopeful tolerance" than it is for his loved ones.
Kathy Urbanski says she is just trying to make it through the day - overwhelmed, exhausted and angry.
"I'm seeing my husband in a wheelchair. I'm still thinking about the suffering that he's been through. I just lay awake at night, worrying and upset," she says. "I don't see an end in sight. I guess maybe a lot of it's fear, because so much of this is uncharted territory for us.
"I'm worrying about when we get older. I don't know if my health gives out at some point, or when I get old, if I'm going to be able to care for him in the way that he deserves. I don't know."
The couple has begun counseling, months after first requesting it. So far Kathy Urbanski has been denied individual counseling by Sierra Nevada Administrators, according to Jay Kenyon, attorney with Henness & Haight, which is representing the Urbanskis in workers' compensation claims.
"I can't go on like this," Kathy Urbanski says. "I can't even cope with this anymore. I feel like I am completely unable to cope."
For now, Kathy Urbanski copes mostly through anger.
"If I weren't angry, how would I get through the day? I'm supposed to just smile? Just smile and pretend to be happy?" she says. "I think the anger is empowering. I don't subscribe to the fact that people shouldn't get angry when bad things happen. I think people can get depressed or angry in this situation. My anger won't go away until justice has been served."
Part of her anger is directed toward Adam "Pacman" Jones, the NFL player who was at Minxx after the all-star game and has accepted a plea deal for his part in the incident at the strip club before the shooting.
But most is directed toward the man who shot Tom Urbanski. The shooter hasn't been identified, and Tom and Kathy Urbanski agree that finding him would help them move forward.
"I want the shooter found at all costs. I want him found. Yet at the same time, it's not going to make my husband walk again," Kathy Urbanski says. "It affects every moment of his life, and my life. I feel like, in many ways my life, life as we know it, has ended."