Like many of us, I’ve been stunned beyond comprehension at the shootings that occurred just days ago in Aurora, Colorado. But in the aftermath, it’s not the issue of gun ownership that occupies my mind. It’s not trying to fathom the unfathomable motives that would drive someone to stockpile assault weapons and ammunition, to boobytrap his apartment with tripwires and grenades and gasoline, and decide to shoot seventy-one people in a public cinema at a Batman movie. What gets to me is thinking about the people who were there, going out for a night of communal fun and getting shot at instead.
Hearing the details about the individuals who died, how young most of them were, stops me in my tracks. And I think of all the grief-stricken people who will miss them, who cannot believe the circumstances of their loss. And I think of all the people who managed to escape with their lives, but were injured, some gravely, who are traumatized in every way now, who may not recover, who may be disabled emotionally or physically, whose lives are turned upside down, who will need a long time and a lot of help to get past this.
What I think about is a Friday morning in February, 2003, here in Rhode Island. And of getting a phone call as I was preparing to go to work that morning. The caller was one of the secretaries from the main office of the rehab department at our local hospital. She called to tell me that Nancy, my colleague at the outpatient rehab clinic where we worked, who was the other full-time physical therapist there, would not be coming in that day, because she needed to find out if her 23-year-old son survived the fire the night before.
“What?” I gasped. “What fire?”
“The fire at the Station Nightclub. Didn’t you hear it on the news? The band ‘Great White’ had a gig at the Station last night. Nancy’s son was there. And there was a fire. And people couldn’t get out. And he never came home.”
I was instantly sick with fear. I turned on the car radio as I drove to work. When I got there, our receptionist, my friend Kerry, was just pulling in. We looked at each other. Our eyes welled up. We opened the clinic and started to get on the phone, rearranging patients. I fit as many of Nancy’s patients into my schedule as I could, and another PT from the main office was going to come in the afternoon to help me. All day we slogged through work, half-numb, listening to the radio in the gym, waiting to hear more news, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. I remember retreating from time to time to our charting office, not to catch up on my paperwork, but to sit and cry. Finally, at the end of the day, I called Nancy’s home and got an equivocal update: they had found her son’s car, near the club, but he himself never turned up for treatment at any of the area hospitals. It was believed that his body was among a group that had succumbed near the stage and never made it out. A confirmed identification was expected the next day. But they were pretty certain already.
The next day, Saturday, we got the final word. Yes, Andrew had died. He was a tall, bright, handsome young guy, who dropped in at the clinic now and then. He looked like his mom. He had finished his bachelor’s degree and was working for a while, to save money for law school. He’d gone to the club to meet a customer from work who’d become a friend. The fire started when some pyrotechnics set off by the band’s manager ignited the ceiling and walls around the stage. In less than six minutes, the entire club was engulfed. Altogether, a hundred people died. Another two hundred and thirty were injured. A hundred and thirty-two people managed to get out without physical injuries. Andrew’s friend was hospitalized, but survived. But no one escaped unscathed. It would be months before Nancy came back to work.
Meanwhile, at the clinic, almost immediately, people who’d been treated and released by the local emergency departments began to trickle in for rehab. Dozens more were still hospitalized, with burns, respiratory damage, fractures, trauma. As the weeks passed, we treated more of them. Every day, I evaluated people with the marks of panic, heat and smoke, and desperate escape on their bodies, as I charted their bruises and sprains and broken ribs and shortness of breath. Every day, someone cried when I asked them how they were doing, or when I had them lie down on my treatment table while I tried to warm up and stretch and massage away some of the damage.
Rhode Island is a small state. Everyone knew someone who’d been there, often several people. Most of those who’d been there were young, in their twenties and thirties, the kind of people who liked hard rock and superhero movies. Those who survived felt guilty or angry or had nightmares or chronic pain or walked with crutches if they could walk at all. Meanwhile, there were wakes and funerals everywhere. For weeks. Hundreds of people showed up at Andrew’s wake. The media were a constant presence. They seemed to interview everyone they could find. I was relieved they never found their way to our clinic. I certainly didn’t want to be interviewed.
It was the fourth deadliest fire in U.S. history. On and on the aftermath went, for weeks and months and years. Some of the survivors and some of the families of those who died found solace and validation in all the media attention and class-action lawsuits. It helped them demand answers, insist on accountability for the circumstances of the tragedy. It helped as they called for a close examination of the laws and regulations that were supposed to prevent things like this from happening.
Many more, like Nancy and her family, found the public spectacle bizarre and surreal. It was intrusive, and ultimately did not help them with their personal grief. Many of my patients got sick of the hype, just wanted to be left alone so they could get over it all. Lawyers and journalists couldn’t help their aches and pains go away, or bring back their friends and sweethearts. Or cope with getting back to work. Or figure out how to get to sleep at night.
This is what I’ve been thinking of since the shootings in Aurora. I’ve been thinking of the damage and the aftermath. The tangible aftermath of scars and contusions, and the emotional aftermath of funerals and post-traumatic stress. I’ve been thinking of my clinical sisters and brothers, the paramedics and doctors and nurses and rehab therapists and social workers and counselors, knocking themselves out to help all these wounded individuals and their wounded families, feeling battered themselves as they try to help these folks sort out their shattered lives. I’ve been thinking of Nancy, and how she and her family continue to leave town every February, to escape the anniversaries and the opportunists who make hay of them. I’ve been thinking about how, before every concert or play or indoor public gathering I’ve attended in New England since that February, someone now takes a few minutes before the event to ask everyone to please take note of all the exits and emergency lights in the theater. Just yesterday, I discovered that someone I’ve known for months now has a son who was there that night, who escaped by shoving past a bouncer who was unaccountably blocking an exit door, and managed to yank off the lock, dragging himself and another young man to safety. Nine years later, there’s still no coherent answer to why it happened.
If there’s one thing I understand even more profoundly than ever, it’s that healing always takes longer than you think. Four years ago today, I was told I had cancer. I’m a lot better, but not all better. There’s no question that it helps to know others who understand what you’ve been through, because they’ve been through it themselves. But there’s a fine line between the comfort of public awareness and the exploitation of public spectacle.
At the end of the day, hype doesn’t heal. That’s certainly been true for me. Ultimately, healing is personal, and it happens in private, one day at a time, one body, one person, one life at a time.