She was shot outside East High School, but this ‘warrior’ teen is now fighting through recovery

Kemery Ortega, 18, a senior at East High School is recovering after being shot in the head outside of the school on March 7, 2022. Pictured is Kemery with her mother, Miriam Montiel Téllez.

By Andrea May Sahouri, Des Moines Register

Reyes Ortega was on his way to East High School to pick up his daughter when he saw the police cars.

First, there were about five of them, he said. Then seven cars. Then 10. More kept coming.


He called his daughter, Kemery Ortega, a senior at East. She didn’t answer. He started to panic.

About an hour later, Reyes Ortega, 42, got a call from Des Moines police, he said. There had been a drive-by shooting at the school’s north parking lot that day, March 7, and his 18-year-old daughter had been shot in the head.

“Every time we think about what happened, we start shaking,” Reyes Ortega said Tuesday outside of MercyOne Medical Center.


“It’s a fear for our children,” said Miriam Montiel Téllez, Kemery Ortega’s mother, with a freshly shaved head. She shaved it for her daughter, who also had her head shaved for surgery.

“There is no peace in my heart now,” she said. And when she heard the news of her daughter, “I felt like I was going to die at that moment.”

Along with Kemery Ortega, another East student was caught in the gunfire and remains hospitalized. Jose Lopez-Perez, 15 — whom police said they believe was the intended target — was killed in the shooting.


They didn’t know if their daughter would wake up but then ‘a miracle’

When Kemery Ortega was rushed into surgery that Monday, the doctors said it wasn’t looking good, recalled Montiel Téllez. And after surgery, they didn’t know when — or if — she’d wake up.

But “Kemery is strong, very very strong,” said her father, Reyes Ortega.

Thirteen hours after surgery, Kemery Ortega opened her eyes, looked at her mother, and waved, Montiel Téllez said.

“It’s truly a miracle. That’s what the nurses and doctors call her here, too. Because she is,” Montiel Téllez, 41, said.

“I truly believe in the power of prayer — The whole community is praying for her,” Montiel Téllez said. People from all over the world have also reached out to support Kemery Ortega, her mother said, and a GoFundMe to support Kemery Ortega’s recovery had surpassed $24,000 by Tuesday.


Kemery Ortega remembers hearing gun shots and her friend calling her name

Kemery Ortega told her mother she remembers being in a car with her friend, waiting for her father to pick her up from school early, Montiel Téllez said.

She remembers hearing gun shots, Montiel Téllez said. And the last thing she remembered before blacking out and waking up in the hospital was the voice of her friend calling her name, and the voices of the paramedics, Montiel Téllez continued.

Doctors warned Kemery Ortega’s parents that she might have speech issues, memory loss, or personality changes due to her injuries. But Montiel Téllez said her daughter is speaking and writing normally, both in Spanish and English. And when she has the strength, she can walk.

Their daughter has a long way to go toward a full recovery, Kemery Ortega’s parents said, including surgery to put a titanium plate in her skull.

And she’s in a lot of pain — Kemery Ortega has been intubated twice, and secretions in her lungs have made it hard to swallow and eat. As of Tuesday, she can only eat ice chips and drink water from a spoon without the help of a feeding tube, Montiel Téllez said, but the swelling in her brain is decreasing and she’s improving quickly.

A smart, laughing, smiling tomboy

Kemery Ortega’s parents described their daughter as sweet, loving, strong, hard working, smart, and artistic. She is someone who cares deeply for her friends and family, they said, and is always smiling and laughing.

She’s also a tomboy, they said — she loves to skateboard and help her father fix cars.

And, Kemery Ortega always has a positive attitude.


“Whatever situation it is, she’s going to make the best of it,” Montiel Téllez said. “She does that now, even with all the pain she’s going through — Kemery is a warrior.”

She said Kemery Ortega is still smiling and laughing. And she isn’t asking “why me?”

“She knows she’s alive and she’s thankful for that,” Montiel Téllez said

Instead, “she wishes to know why they did it,” Montiel Téllez said, referring to the six local teenagers who have been charged in the shooting.

Andrea Sahouri covers social justice for the Des Moines Register. She can be contacted at [email protected], on Twitter @andreamsahouri, or by phone 515-284-8247.

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