Living

20 years after Columbine shooting, survivor chooses hope and ‘freedom over fear’

In this March 27, 2019, photo, Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson poses for a portrait at her home in Cary, N.C. Ruegsegger Johnson, now a mother of four, survived a shotgun blast during the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School that left 12 students, one teacher, and both gunmen dead. The emotional toll of the shooting, joined by fears about their own kids’ safety, spikes each time yet another shooter enters another school.
In this March 27, 2019, photo, Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson poses for a portrait at her home in Cary, N.C. Ruegsegger Johnson, now a mother of four, survived a shotgun blast during the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School that left 12 students, one teacher, and both gunmen dead. The emotional toll of the shooting, joined by fears about their own kids’ safety, spikes each time yet another shooter enters another school. AP Photo

Kacey Ruegsegger threw herself under a computer table and covered herself with a plastic chair as two young men with guns shouted and threatened to blow up the room.

“Get down, get your heads under the tables, and hide!” a teacher shouted to everyone in the school library, warning them about boys with guns.

Kacey noticed the boy near her who was trying to hide too — he had just been sitting next to her — but he didn’t have cover. Within minutes, he was shot and killed. The gunman hovered in front of her. She knew she was the next target.

It’s been 20 years since she survived the mass shooting on April 20, 1999, at Columbine High School, and she remembers every detail.

At the time, the massacre in Littleton, Colo., was the deadliest shooting at a high school in U.S. history. Twelve students and one teacher were killed, and 21 more were injured. The two shooters died as well. And the library, where Kacey was shot at close range, was where most of the victims were hit by gunfire.

Since then, other school shootings have become synonymous with Columbine — and have become more deadly: Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook., Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.

“I feel like when these things happen, people are joining this club,” said Kacey, now Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson, a 37-year-old mother of four now living in Cary. “Nobody would ever sign up to be in this club we’re in.”

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FILE - In this May 1, 1999, file photo, Kacey Ruegsegger, 17, is wheeled from a Denver hospital by Patty Anderson, center, after being released. Walking beside her are her parents Greg, left, and Darcy, right. Ruegsegger Johnson survived a shotgun blast during the 1999 shootings at Colorado’s Columbine High School that left 12 students, one teacher, and both gunmen dead. Ed Andrieski, File AP Photo

It’s a club that Johnson has struggled with since that April day. She has experienced post-traumatic stress and has had multiple surgeries on her shoulder and hand where she was shot. Every time another mass shooting occurs, memories of that day return.

Saturday’s anniversary of the Columbine shooting will bring Johnson back to Colorado for memorials and renewed attention on the survivors. She has taken part in local and national media interviews about the anniversary, including Thursday’s “CBS This Morning” and Friday on Fox News.

“For me and my family, we usually choose to set the 20th aside, whether it’s the five-year anniversary, the 10-year, 13 years,” she told The News & Observer in a phone interview. “We usually just set that day aside of being together and celebrating that I do have the chance to live this beautiful life and have this family, but also remembering that several of my classmates didn’t get that same opportunity.”

In addition to the 20-year milestone, this year will be different, because Johnson plans to introduce more of her story to her two older children. She and her husband, Patrick Johnson, have children ages 5, 6, 9 and 11. The older two are aware that their mother was shot by gunmen at her high school. Johnson said it’s important to include the older children in her return to Colorado.

“I don’t know that there’s going to be another year or anniversary that celebrated widely again,” Johnson said. “I don’t want them to someday look back and wish that they got to be part of something.”

An agonizing time

Over time, she has learned she can talk about her experience publicly — that she has been able to choose freedom over fear. She speaks to groups as a way of helping others and to promote tissue donation, which she credits with saving her arm from amputation.

She wrote a book, “Over My Shoulder: A Columbine Survivor’s Story of Resilience, Hope and a Life Reclaimed,” published in March.She recounts the shooting in detail and how faith and family helped her endure the agonizing aftermath.

Johnson was a 17-year-old junior and a new student at Columbine High School in 1999. That day, she couldn’t find her friend, the one she normally ate with, so she went to the library. While snacking, she saw a boy who needed a seat, so she invited him to sit next to her. When the shooting started, he was the one who didn’t have cover. She was the last person he would ever talk to.

“The shooter doesn’t move from his position and turns the shotgun on me,” she wrote. “I hear the blast and feel myself being thrown forward, watching my right arm fly in slow motion in front of me. I feel nothing.”

She wrote that she played dead and waited for the shooters to exit before realizing she was lying in a pool of her own blood. She had been shot from behind. The bullet went through her shoulder, grazed her neck and then through her thumb, which was plugging her ear.

“I was bleeding out really fast,” Johnson said. “Really it’s just a miracle I didn’t bleed to death. In the X-ray it just looks like a cloud of dust. You wouldn’t even be able to recognize that was a shoulder before.”

A boy led survivors out of the library, while another girl helped her up. Some removed their clothes to wrap victims’ wounds.

“I remember everything, and I think that’s what’s so interesting about my recounting of the day,” she said. “Because a lot of victims of trauma block out a lot of information and miss facts or miss timeline of events.”

Eventually, she was taken to the hospital where she had an emotional reunion with her family. After days and nights in the hospital, she was released, but her healing would be a work in progress for years to come.

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Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson survived the Columbine High School shooting in 1999. She provided this X-ray of her shoulder. The bullet went through her shoulder, grazed her neck and then through her thumb, which was plugging her ear. “In the X-ray it just looks like a cloud of dust. You wouldn’t even be able to recognize that was a shoulder before,” she said. Courtesy of Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson

Hope after hopelessness

Since Columbine, mass shootings make regular headlines. At times, Johnson is asked about her reaction to them, but she doesn’t see herself as an expert in school shootings. She doesn’t wish to become a political advocate. She said she just sees herself as someone who created hope from a hopeless situation.

“Bad things can turn around and be used for good, and that purpose can come even from the worst days of our lives,” she said.

When the Virginia Tech shooting happened in 2007, Johnson was able to talk to other survivors. A lot of them had questions about survivors’ guilt, something that Johnson experienced herself when seeing the families of classmates who had died.

“We didn’t have a lot of people to tell us, ‘This is what it might be like in five years or in 10 years,’ or ‘This is how I worked through survivor guilt.’ Or flashbacks, or just really tangible advice from somebody who actually understands,” she said. “So I almost feel a responsibility to be available to these people because I want them to know good can come out of this, eventually. But it’s going to be a really hard journey.”

She has had 12 surgeries on her right arm and hand. An allograft (donated tissue from a cadaver bone) was used to repair her shoulder. The procedure allowed her to have limited function in her hand and shoulder, instead of becoming an amputee.

Four years ago, she started writing her book, after being prompted by so many people to share her story. Co-writing the book with her friend Karen Booker Schelhaas, it became a way for her to take ownership of her narrative. She didn’t like the feeling of pity she received those first years after the shooting. She realized she only was telling the bad things, the facts.

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Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson is a survivor of the Columbine High School shooting. She speaks about her experiences as well as the merits of tissue and organ donation, which she says saved her arm from being amputated. She works with the Limb Preservation Foundation in Denver. Courtesy of Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson

“At about the 13-year mark, I really had had enough healing to where I could understand how my story has impacted me, the choices I’ve made to use it for good in my life,” she said.

She not only shares her memories, but those of her family members who watched her healing process. Johnson said interviewing her family and seeing her situation from their perspective was the most emotional part of writing the book.

Being in a hospital and working with the Limb Preservation Foundation in Denver allowed her to find a calling in patient care. For a while, she was a nurse, but her injuries were too extensive to continue. She has continued to work for the Limb Preservation Foundation, under the doctor who helped save her arm, in the patient care program. She also continues to speak at medical events to promote tissue donation and allograft bones.

In addition to her book, Johnson keeps a blog to elaborate on other topics, like how she talks to her children about the shooting, and her conviction of never speaking shooters’ names.

“I want to share my journey of hope and healing and wanting to reclaim my life from the hold that fear had on me, that fear and evil intentions had on me,” she said.

‘The girl from Columbine’

Johnson and her family moved to Cary about two years ago. For about six months, she was not “the girl from Columbine,” and her family was able to establish themselves, she said. Johnson came to realize she would need to tell her story to truly get to know the new people she met.

But while she has told her story for 20 years, allowing herself to be vulnerable, telling her children feels fresh. This is when she becomes emotional.

“I never want to lie to them, but I also don’t want to give more than they need to hear,” she said. “I still want them to be protected in their little minds and hearts to stay childlike for as long as this world allows.”

Still, she also wants them to know that faith and hope helped her heal after many years of pain. That will be on display this weekend in Colorado.

“We tend to tell our kids that we can’t always control the choices of others,” she said. “But what we can control is how we choose to treat others. So when we leave the house in the morning and we drive to school, we pray over their day. We pray over the people who come to the school and I pray over the hearts of each of my kids.”

Details

For more on the book and her blog, go to kaceyruegseggerjohnson.com.

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