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Then & Now: Pat Ireland

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Pat Ireland escapes the Columbine library on April 20, 1999.

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(CNN) -- Financial planner Pat Ireland would have been happy if the rest of the country had never heard of him or his high school. But on April 20, 1999, Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, became infamous when two heavily armed students opened fire on students and faculty.

Millions of TV viewers watched the aftermath and witnessed the dramatic images of Ireland, then a 17-year-old junior, hanging out of a second-floor window to escape.

By the end of the day, 14 students, including shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and one teacher were dead. Twenty-three others, including Ireland, were injured.

Shot twice in the head, partially paralyzing him, and once in the foot, Ireland remembers very little of the incident and his escape aided by a SWAT team.

"When I first was shot in the library, I passed out and was passing in and out of consciousness," he recalled. "When I first woke up from that, I wasn't sure what had happened. I tried to stand up a couple times and realized I couldn't. From that point, I was kind of confused as to what exactly had happened to me.

"I knew I had been shot, but I wasn't sure what the extent of my injuries were, so my goal at the time was just to get out as quickly as possible," he continued. "From the time I was shot to the time I climbed out the window was about a three-hour period. The whole time I was crawling across the library floor, I was just passing in and out of consciousness. I was running on a lot of adrenaline. I wasn't really affected by the pain. My main thought was just to get to the nearest exit as quickly as possible, even if it was a window."

Ireland, who didn't know either of the assailants, escaped with his life. But his life as an active teenager who enjoyed playing baseball and, basketball and water skiing, was on hold. Suddenly the things that matter to a typical high school student took a back seat to his recovery.

"I had to relearn how to walk and talk and read and write," Ireland said. "The hardest part was the speech therapy, trying to relearn the reading and writing and being able to basically rewire your brain so you can function like that."

Although he remained in physical therapy for more than 17 months, Ireland learned to walk before the summer.

A 4.0 student before the shooting, Ireland was determined to return to Columbine in time to graduate with his class. "I went back to school in August with the rest of my class, and I tried to make it as normal as possible," he remembered. "I didn't want things to change or be affected too greatly. I never would have dreamed of going anywhere else.

"I graduated valedictorian from Columbine," Ireland continued. "I had a 4.0 through my junior year and it had always been one of my goals to keep it up and graduate valedictorian, so I had that goal in mind and got it done."

The co-valedictorian carried that academic dedication through four years at Colorado State, where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree in business administration, graduating magna cum laude with a 3.9 GPA.

But Ireland, who works as a financial representative for Northwestern Mutual Financial Network, got more than a degree at college. As a freshman, he met Casey Lancaster, and they plan to wed this summer.

With his injuries almost completely healed -- he still suffers from fine motor skill sluggishness in his hands, which is expected to get better over time, Ireland prefers to keep that day behind him.

"I think initially there was some question as to why, but you just can't focus on that stuff," he said. "You've got to get past it and realize that you have your own life to live and try to make the most of it.

"I think that generally the human spirit is good and good will always prevail," he added. "I'm not living in fear or anything like that, so I'm pretty much past things and doing okay with everything. Casey and I are going to get married this August, and we're going to live a long, happy life together."

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