A mass casualty incident leaves many victims in its wake. Beyond those who are tragically killed, survivors also suffer from the physical and psychological effects of the incident. Unfortunately, the psychologically injured can sometimes go unnoticed. One survivor of the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 recounts her story of survival and her journey back to recovery.
On 16 April 2007, I headed to computer science class in Norris Hall at Virginia Tech. Fifteen minutes of computer science class remained when there was an extremely loud popping sound. I had rarely, if ever, heard live gunfire. I froze. Thankfully, the teaching assistant and classmates took action. They stepped into the hallway, exploring the unusual sound, when the shooter came out of a classroom across the hall. They called 9-1-1, built a barricade with a card table and desks, and kept the shooter out of the classroom, just seconds before he attempted to enter. There was no lock on the door. Classmates suggested lying on the floor because the gunman was shooting chest-height.
The Norris Hall shooting lasted 12 minutes. Within hours of the last gunshot, the university was instantly overwhelmed by media, overwhelmed with people and organizations who want to help and donate, and overwhelmed with personal emotions and really hard questions: How did this happen? Why at our school? What do we do now?
My classmates and I walked out of Norris Hall physically unharmed. After the shooting, I constantly compared myself to the physically injured survivors, and thought I was undeserving of being recognized as a “survivor” because the shooter had not entered our classroom. Therefore, I thought I needed to be quiet and minimize the impact the shooting had on me. Staying as busy as possible, I needed help, but did not realize it. Not knowing how to deal with post-traumatic stress, I used food and exercise to cope. Eight years after the shooting, I sought counseling for an eating disorder.
What to Do Now
Naturally, university staff members start with what they can see – the families who lost their daughters and sons and the physically injured survivors in the hospital. They organize private events for those deeply affected and public events for the larger community. By having private events, universities create safe places for those whose lives and families are changed forever. But the key questions are: Who should be invited to the private events? Who qualifies as “lives changed forever”?
It is not as if a line can be drawn with people on this side of the line being deeply affected and people on the other side not affected. I was on the side of that line that was not invited to the private events and received the same invitations to the public events as the rest of the students and faculty. Yes, there were people deeply affected and, yes, there were people less affected. However, there is no clear line between the two.
It is extremely awkward and uncomfortable to ask for resources and invitations to attend private events when students and faculty died, and others may not be able to walk again. It feels selfish. However, I learned many things from counseling, two of which are: to make self-care a priority; and to not compare one experience to anyone else’s. The unseen is often forgotten and, to be honest, I felt forgotten. My scars are invisible, but it does not take a bullet wound to be injured. The psychological effect of surviving an active shooter event is intangible and boundless. The level of trauma that each individual experiences varies.
In 2015, I recovered from my eating disorder. In 2016, my husband and I started our family, and I gave birth to a baby girl. I often reflect on the years between the shooting and recovery, and have come to know them as the lost years after trauma. I remind myself to keep self-care a priority. Life is a journey and lessons are learned on the way. Hopefully, this story will help other schools, agencies, and organizations learn from my experience, and recognize the need to provide adequate support, resources, and recognition for physically uninjured survivors in the future.