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Columbine survivor: Expect an emotional roller coaster

Story Highlights

•Virginia Tech survivors should expect emotional swings, Columbine survivor says
• Survivors need to talk and need gentle listeners, she says
• Even though life will never be the same, one day it will be OK, survivor says
By Mary Carter
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- As Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson got ready for bed Monday night, she planned an escape route from her Tuesday morning theology class at Denver Seminary. The 25-year-old Columbine survivor wanted to be ready.

"If somebody was to walk in that room shooting, where am I going to go?" she recalls thinking. In the wake of Monday's campus rampage at Virginia Tech, Johnson's emotion was understandable.

So she stayed home. "If I went I would just be nervous," she said. "When I'm in a situation like that -- that I'm scared of or it sparks a lot of memories for me -- I'm watching every person very intently that walks through the door. I think it's very normal for me to be feeling that way, but I just didn't want to have to explain anything or disrupt class."

Post-traumatic stress is a fact of life for Johnson, whose shoulder was shattered by a shotgun blast in the Columbine High School library morning eight years ago Friday. She still has physical scars -- she's on disability from her job as a nurse because of recurring pain from her injury. And she has emotional wounds as well -- she's susceptible to "triggers" -- sights or sounds that bring back vivid memories of gunfire, of sirens and helicopters.

She says Monday's survivors should expect an emotional roller coaster. "There's sadness and anger and confusion. ... So many different emotions, frustration ... Know that it's normal to change how you're feeling, to go back and forth between anger and acceptance and sadness," she said. "And it's OK that years down the road you might still have those feelings."

She hopes they will talk about those feelings. And she hopes their loved ones will listen. "It's very important to be able to express how they're feeling, without somebody doubting them," she said. "Their family is not going to understand because they didn't see the things that those kids saw. They did not see their peers lying there dead. They didn't see a gun pointed at their face."

She still has moments, when she hears a loud noise for example, that can take her back to that day at Columbine, crouching with her fingers in her ears in the school library. But the intensity is fading.

"I think it's always going to be normal that things trigger me," she says. "Each year it gets less and less."

In fact, she said, her first reaction after hearing of Monday's campus massacre at Virginia Tech wasn't fear.

"It was just sadness that there's other people going through the horrible thing that I've lived through," she said. "Knowing what they're experiencing and how awful it is."

Johnson's injuries were severe. Initially she was in critical condition from blood loss. She was hospitalized for two weeks.

After she knew she would survive, the fear kicked in. For a year, she said, "I didn't want to be in public. I didn't want anybody knowing my name. I was afraid -- from the post-traumatic stress -- that somebody was going to finish me off. To normal people that makes no sense, but to a victim of something like that -- to me -- it made perfect sense."

Counseling that summer helped "to get me back into the real world -- going to the grocery store or going to the movies," she said. She elected not to return to Columbine and instead graduated in 2000 from Denver Christian High School. Next came Arapahoe Community College and a nursing degree.

That choice was a direct result of Columbine as well. At the time of the shooting, she had planned to be a teacher. But afterward, she knew she couldn't work in a school. The nurses who got her through those first two weeks, and who continued to check on her as she recovered, inspired her.

"They had big impact on my recovery, so I wanted to be able to do that for somebody else," she said.

The lessons of Columbine, she said, have made her a better nurse.

"I feel like I have so much to give because of what I went through," Johnson said. "Especially with my cancer patients at the end of life, or with a new diagnosis. That's life-changing. Its completely different from my life-changing experience, but for people who are going through something like that, it was really helpful to have a nurse who had been through something traumatic."

Today Johnson lives in suburban Denver with her husband, Patrick, and their retrievers, Maggie and Penny. She's hoping that rest will take care of the problems she continues to have with her injured shoulder. She knows another shoulder replacement surgery lies ahead, but she's hoping rest can stave it off a while longer. When she returns to nursing, it'll probably be in an office rather than at bedside.

Eight years removed from that traumatic day at school, life is good, Johnson said, and she wants the Virginia Tech survivors to know that even though they may feel their world will never the same, one day they, too, will find a new equilibrium.

"I feel normal," she said. "It's a different kind of normal, but it's normal."

Eight years after her shooting, life feels normal for Kacey Ruegsegger Johnson, here with husband, Patrick, and dogs Penny, left, and Maggie.


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