Just one bullet.
It shattered Chelsea Romo’s left eye. It nearly blinded her right.
It exploded inside her head. It caused two hematomas that physically shifted the position of her brain.
Shrapnel exploded throughout her skull and face. So much that it clogged a machine doctors later used to suck out the debris.
It did exactly what a round fired by an AR-15 was intended to do: inflict maximum damage. Rounds from similar guns caused the brutal physical wounds suffered by victims in Las Vegas, a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, and a school in Parkland, Florida. It is why the AR-15 and similar rifles are again at the forefront of today’s student-led debate about whether some guns simply should not be available to civilians.
For Chelsea Romo, that single bullet altered her body and life forever.
Shrapnel is still inside her, creating hard gray spots under the skin of her face and her scalp. Periodically, pieces come to the surface and can be picked out.
But just the fact that she’s alive means so much. Romo had three surgeries in 10 days to begin repairing the damage. Screws were put in her cheek. Her cornea was sutured shut.
The 28-year-old mother of a 5-year-old boy and 2-year-old girl thought she would never get to see them again.
“I’ve thought about as my daughter grew up and not seeing her get married or seeing her become a woman and seeing her face as she matures,” Romo says.
But Romo has experienced what her eye doctors repeatedly tell her is a miracle. Her left eye is an empty socket. But with the help of a hard lens she must put in and pop out each day, the sight in her right eye is getting better.
Total blackness to a blurry light
Romo doesn’t remember the gunshot that changed her life. She was standing in the front row at the Route 91 festival in Las Vegas on October 1 when the gunfire started and her friend told her to duck.
Romo held the left side of her face as she turned to her friend.
“I can’t see,” Romo told her. Everything was orange.
After that, it was total blackness for a week.
She slipped in and out of consciousness and heard doctors talk about a fractured this, a fractured that.
And then a little light returned.
“I remember the exact moment when they took the goggles off and I saw the doctor in front of me. It was the first time I saw anything in a week and to me it was just a relief,” Romo recalls. “Even if it was horrible vision, at least I could see something. It wasn’t black anymore.”
She returned home to California and the love and support of family and friends who never left her side. Who leaned her over the side of her bed to wash her hair when she couldn’t. Who painted her nails and tried to cheer her up. Who refused to leave her alone when she didn’t want company.
Now, she seems incomprehensibly upbeat. She makes jokes about her injury. It’s how she copes, because she knows this is her new normal. She wants her children to see what thriving, not just surviving, looks like.
She refuses to stay in the “dark place” where little things like not being able to find the shampoo made her feel inadequate.
Still, she remembers the first time she looked at her eye injury in December after having covered it with bandages, pulling her long flowing blond hair to the side.
“It freaked me out at first,” Romo says. “It was devastating, but I’m like, it’s gonna get better, it has got better and I’m still here.”
She parts her hair on the other side now to cover the missing eye. Multiple surgeries lie ahead as she and her doctors work to get her a prosthetic.
She focuses on that future and on her children. She is more thankful than ever now for the moments of light and joy in her life.
Thankful for the kindness and caring shown by her 5-year-old, Gavin, as he clears her path and holds her hand to guide her.
Staying strong, when he tells her he is afraid she will be hurt again. Romo keeps her mindset focused on the fact that she is still here. She is alive. She can hug her kids, and now, out of one eye at least, see them.
Another bullet, another life shattered
With so many bullets fired that night, Chelsea Romo is far from alone.
It was another single bullet among the thousand-plus in Las Vegas that hit Rosemarie Melanson in the chest and then ricocheted through her body, tearing apart nearly everything it touched.
It entered above her breast then broke a rib and pierced her lower right lung. It kept going to the place where the esophagus connects to the top of the stomach, her husband, Steve, recounts. It went through the back of her stomach and through her spleen and took a third of her liver out.
“And then she’s still full of shrapnel,” Steve Melanson says.
She spent more than 100 days in the hospital, fighting for her life, before doctors thought she could be released and go home. But her injuries were so excruciating, she was back in the hospital again just two days later. She’s still there now, too sick to talk, unable to even keep tea down.
For her daughter, Paige, who was at her side at the concert and now in the Trauma Center at Las Vegas’ University Medical Center, it’s time for action. Action on behalf of Vegas’ 58 dead and those before and since, and for all the wounded, including the Parkland students.
“After the Las Vegas shooting they said it’s not the right time to talk about that. After the Texas shooting, they said it’s not the right time to talk about guns. After Parkland, let them grieve. It’s not the time,” she rattles off attacks and responses.
“When is it going to be the time? Because clearly, us in Vegas, we’ve had our grieving period … we’re moving on. We’re ready to talk about it, but in the meantime you’ve had Texas, you’ve had Parkland. When is going to be the right time?”
CNN’s Traci Tamura contributed to this story. Simon, Sidner and Tamura reported from San Diego and Las Vegas, and Simon wrote in Las Vegas.