Senior Kevin Sterne will see the scar on his thigh every time he pulls on his pants. Freshman Hilary Strollo will have to decide whether to bare her stomach in a swimsuit. And on the day someone slips a wedding band on her finger, junior Katelyn Carney will see the healed-up hole that a Virginia Tech gunman put in her left hand.
Most of the dead from the April 16 massacre on campus are buried, their families learning to live with loss.
Those who survived will have their own struggles, from physical scars to deep wounds of the psyche, trying to figure out how to stop the most dramatic event in their lives from overshadowing everything else that happens to them.
Anne Lynam Goddard, whose son Colin was shot three times during the attack on his French class, sees his trauma the way doctors see the shrapnel embedded in the tissue of his wounded leg: trying to remove it would cause more pain and might make matters worse, so it’s best to leave it be.
“Your body forms a cocoon, so it will always be part of you, but it won’t hurt. That’s how I started thinking about this early on,” she said. “My biggest hope is that this is how my son will remember this. I hope he can form a cocoon around it and not let it be his defining moment.”
The terror of those moments is nightmarish. After sneaking into a dorm and killing two students with two shots from a 9 mm handgun, Seung-Hui Cho took his time, heading to a post office to mail a package of video and writings expressing his anger.
Then he chained the doors of Norris Hall, stormed several classrooms and unloaded more than 170 rounds over nine long minutes. Students—some wounded, some not—cowered, played dead and listened in horror as 30 of their classmates and teachers died.
Cho then put a bullet through his head and dropped to the floor amid his victims.
Most of the 25 people hurt in the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history are healing in private, declining or ignoring interview requests.
‘We will go on and we will heal’
Justin Klein, a junior from Catonsville, Md., who survived three gunshot wounds, issued a statement saying he is progressing physically and emotionally. He’s back on campus, with friends forming a buffer around his wheelchair, shielding him from reporters.
“My place is here, with my friends,” Klein wrote. “The Hokie community is strong and resilient, we will persevere, we will go on and we will heal.”
It will not be easy. As the weeks and months unfold, the wounded could experience depression, survivor’s guilt, thoughts of suicide, anger, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Physical injuries and painful follow-up surgeries could slow students’ academic progress and keep them feeling somewhat isolated, said Melissa Brymer, a clinical psychologist with the UCLA-Duke National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.
“Their scars can be reminders to themselves and to others, so this may impact their peer relationships. Their peers might not be able to cope with those reminders. They might distance themselves,” she said.
‘What are the other options?’
There is no single way for victims of a tragedy to recover and adapt to what has happened, said Mark Lerner, a clinical psychologist and traumatic stress consultant.
“For some people, getting back on the horse, getting back on the bicycle and exposing themselves to this difficult environment where this has occurred, being back on that campus will be a really good thing for them,” Lerner said. “For others, it may be more than can be expected, too much for them to handle.”
Patrick Strollo, brother of injured freshman Hilary Strollo, said there is no doubt she will return to campus after recovering at home in Gibsonia, Pa., from three gunshot wounds.
“What are the other options? She’s not the only one who had something happen to her. Every single person who goes to that school has had something happen to them,” he said. “She has a ton of friends there and she needs to stick to the people she can relate with, and they’re going to get through this together.”
Strollo faces a struggle similar to that of Sterne and Carney. Sterne was wounded in the leg, the image of him being carried out of the building captured in a now-famous photograph. Carney was hit in the hand during her German class, but helped fend off the gunman by barricading the door to stop him from getting back into the room.
The bloodbath at Virginia Tech was singular in its horror. But in many ways, the path the wounded must follow is not so different from the one others have traveled.
‘Like everyone was staring at me’
In January 2000, Alvaro Llanos was a freshman at New Jersey’s Seton Hall University when two students set fire to a dormitory. Three classmates died. The flames left the upper half of his body with painful and—for some time—obvious scars.
He went through physical therapy and took a year off from school. When he returned, he found support—and scrutiny.
“I figured I’d feel more comfortable being back at school. Especially when people know what happened, it would be easier than going to a different school and having to answer questions,” Llanos said.
But after walking into a Spanish class the first day back, he quickly realized it wasn’t going to be that easy.
“I felt like everyone was staring at me,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel like one of the regular students anymore.”
That was six years ago, and Llanos has not graduated. He has made a new life, different from the one he’d envisioned.
Instead of pursuing a computer science degree, his recovery process persuaded him to train as a physical therapist. He married, has a toddler daughter and expects a second child soon.
And he has found in himself an energy and positive outlook; he rarely tolerates self-pity.
‘There is no answer’
Some of the Virginia Tech wounded may find it hard to summon patience, but eventually, they must push forward because so much awaits them, Llanos said.
“You have to move on. You can’t be stuck because if you stay stuck you’re never going to be happy,” he said. “Be happy and fulfill your life.”
Sitting in her son’s hospital room the day after the shootings, Anne Goddard tried to pre-empt the most difficult question Colin could ask himself.
“There is no answer to the question of why some people got shot and died and why some people got shot and lived,” she told him. “There is no answer to that question. Don’t go looking for it.”
“Yeah,” he said. “You’re right.”
Colin Goddard is already looking ahead. In the emergency room the day he was shot, the child who was born in Bangladesh and raised in Somalia and Egypt wanted to know if he could still do his internship on a development project this summer in Madagascar.
“Some parents would be afraid to let their kid go. I’m not,” said Anne Goddard, a veteran aid worker who directs the Richmond-based Christian Children’s Fund. “I want him to come back in August talking about something very different.”