Survivor: I didn't live normal childhood
05:32 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: The Empowered Patient is a regular feature from CNN senior medical correspondent Elizabeth Cohen that helps put you in the driver’s seat when it comes to health care.

Story highlights

Three children were wounded in a 1999 shooting in Los Angeles

The survivors of the Connecticut school shooting have a long road ahead, one says

Now in their teens, the survivors say they were traumatized for years

"I couldn't be an average child," says Ben Kadish

Los Angeles CNN  — 

In many ways, Josh Stepakoff’s childhood came to an abrupt halt at 10:49 a.m. on August 10, 1999.

That’s the moment a man named Buford Furrow entered the front door of the North Valley Jewish Community Center in Los Angeles and started shooting. Five people were wounded, including three children.

Stepakoff, who was attending summer camp there, had the bad luck to be in the lobby. He took two bullets to his left leg and hip.

He was 6 at the time, and is among few people who witnessed the horrific sights and sounds of a mass shooting as a very young child. Like the children of Newtown, Connecticut, he saw blood, he heard screams and he was scared for his life.

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The schoolchildren in Connecticut, in the wake of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, have a long road ahead of them, says Stepakoff, now 19.

He was traumatized for years. “If we heard helicopters, sirens, loud noises – anything that would startle me – the house was on lockdown,” he said. “I locked every door. I locked every window.”

Even when things were quiet, walking around the house could be stressful, as Stepakoff thought a killer like Furrow might be hiding behind every corner.

“It’s not just, ‘I’m scared something might pop out at me,’ it was, ‘I’m scared for my life,’” Josh remembered in an interview from his parents’ home in Los Angeles.

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Ben Kadish, who was 5 when he was shot just a few feet away from Josh 13 years ago, said he felt scared at school even five years after the shooting, and sleeping at friends’ houses was out of the question.

“I couldn’t be an average child,” he said.

The intensity of the trauma has dulled with time, the young men say, but the shooting still affects them. For example, both of them chose to go to college in Los Angeles so they wouldn’t be far from home when they had a bad moment.

“If I did run into those times, I didn’t want to be a plane flight away,” Stepakoff said. “I didn’t want to be a six-hour car ride away. I wanted to be five minutes away from my home, my safety zone.”

Stepakoff and Kadish have insights and advice for the parents of Sandy Hook Elementary children, which can also apply to families whose children have suffered other types of trauma.

Shooting victims range in age from 6 to 56

Let them talk – or not

“If I said I didn’t want to talk about it, we didn’t talk about it,” Stepakoff remembers. “If I wanted to talk about it, we talked about it.”

Expect your life to be disrupted

When Stepakoff was a young boy and put his house on lockdown, his parents couldn’t leave, even if they had to get to work. If they were eating lunch at a restaurant and police officers walked in to dine, the family would have to get up and go, because police reminded him of the shootings.

“My parents were great,” he said.

Allow your child to find his way

As a teenager, Stepakoff decided to do work with the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, and found solace in talking to other victims.

James Zidell, the third child injured in the Los Angeles shooting, took refuge in nature. He was also 6 at the time of the shooting.

“In nature you are surrounded by love and beauty,” he wrote in a high school English paper he shared with CNN. “Bad people cannot get me.”

Repeat comforting thoughts

James Zidell’s mother, Francine Zidell, remembers telling her son over and over that Furrow was in jail and couldn’t hurt him anymore. “That seemed to be what he needed to hear,” she says.

Tell your child how strong he is

Kadish says one of the most helpful things his parents did was to tell him how strong he was to survive such a horrendous event.

“My slogan was, ‘You’re Ben Kadish and you can do anything,’” he remembers with a smile.

Support crucial for kids after trauma