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Mass Shooting

A Shooting Survivor Who Refuses to Let a Massacre Define Her

Anne Marie Hochhalter was a Columbine High School junior eating lunch with her friends when two gunmen stormed the lawn.

On a recent Wednesday morning at 11 a.m., the phone alarm sounds its familiar jingle. Anne Marie Hochhalter rises, groggy from another pain-laced night. Gingerly, she removes the pillows cushioning her bony knees and scoots toward the edge of the bed. Placing her full weight on her arms, she carefully shifts out of bed and slides into her wheelchair.

Seventeen years ago, two students staged a murderous attack on Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. Carried over from that day are images of students fleeing from the building; the grainy, time-stamped footage of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold toting their weapons in the library; the 15 wooden crosses staked into a hilltop in memory of the dead. But for every wooden cross, there was at least one wounded survivor: In the attack on Columbine, 22 students and two teachers were injured. The gravity of mass shootings is often calculated by the number of people killed, but the toll unfurls far beyond the fatalities. It was true on February 20 in Kalamazoo, Michigan: six people dead, two critically injured. It was true on February 25 in Hesston, Kansas: three dead, plus the shooter, and another 14 wounded.

And it was true at Columbine, where Hochhalter was among the most gravely injured. She spent five months in the hospital recuperating from surgery and adjusting to life in a wheelchair. Her rehab continued as makeshift memorials faded away, as the school reopened, as the one-year anniversary came and went. Now 34 years old, she is still absorbing the aftershocks of the two bullets that struck her on April 20, 1999. Those bullets devastated her body. But they did not break her.

After transferring into her chair, Hochhalter wheels to the bathroom in her north Denver townhouse. She unclasps the Wednesday compartment of the plastic box containing a week’s worth of medication. Inside are pills for regular pain and pills for the crippling pain that makes her hold her breath; pills for chronic urinary tract infections and pills for inflammation in her shoulders; pills for back issues and pills for melancholy. “Depression runs in my family,” she says. “I’m not ashamed of it.” Six months after Columbine, Hochhalter’s mother killed herself with a .38-caliber revolver in an Englewood pawnshop.

Hochhalter’s class photo from Columbine High School. (Photograph provided by Anne Marie Hochhalter)

“My coworkers make fun of me because I’m popping all the pills all the time,” she says. “But I have to stay ahead of my nerve pain, because if I get behind it, it is twice as hard to catch up.”

After showering, applying makeup, and twisting her auburn hair into a bun, Hochhalter returns to bed to get dressed, one of a dozen daily activities she had to relearn. Driving was another. Shortly after 2 p.m., Hochhalter climbs into the driver’s seat of her Honda Element. Using the car door as a brace, she collapses her wheelchair and places it in the passenger seat — a trick she learned from a guy on Youtube. “It took about a month to get it down to a science,” she says. Since she lives alone, she has to rely on herself.

Her first stop is the Walgreens drive-through, where she drops off two prescriptions. “I’m a frequent flyer at that pharmacy,” she says. “I don’t even need to say my last name.” She then drives east, belting along to Adele’s “Hello,” karaoke-style. (“My steering wheel is my biggest fan.”)

She pulls up to a stop sign. A boy is crossing the street. He has long blond curly hair and wears a long black trench coat. She registers the boy, the blinding sunlight. Time warps.

Lunchtime on April 20, 1999. The first warm day of the year. Hochhalter is 17, sitting cross-legged on the sidewalk outside the cafeteria with two friends, sipping Diet Mountain Dew. From somewhere behind her come loud popping noises, and she turns to see a boy falling, something red blooming from his shin. Paintball, she thinks. A stupid prank.

Her friends, realizing it’s no game, start to run. Before Hochhalter can follow, something strikes the middle of her back. She tries to move, but her legs aren’t working. Moments later, she’s hit again, this time under her right arm. She lies on the ground for 45 minutes, breathing raggedly, longing for the coolness of the cafeteria, her vision bleaching white. When at last the ambulance arrives, Hochhalter is so pale that the paramedic nearly mistakes her for one of the dead. Just in time, she raises her arms.

The boy in the trench coat keeps walking. Hochhalter pushes the memories aside, refocuses on the music. The beginning of spring; the sound of a car backfiring; news of a school bomb threat or school shooting — recently, the murder-suicide of two Arizona teenagers — can all trigger flashbacks from that day. “I don’t deal with it in the healthiest way, but I don’t know how else to do it. I just don’t feel it and shove it back down, deep within myself,” she says. “I’ve buried it for many, many, many years.”

Hochhalter at her home in north Denver, Colorado, in 2009. (Photograph by Barry Gutierrez)

Just before 3 p.m., Hochhalter pulls into the parking lot of the Spinal Cord Injury Recovery Project. She comes here once a week to receive alternative therapies as part of a pilot program. “I have a lot of shoulder issues, hip issues, back issues, neck issues, elbow issues,” she lists. “My whole body is a trainwreck because I’m sitting down all the time.” Perhaps the most disruptive of her ailments is the nerve pain, which attacks her left thigh and has gotten especially bad in the last three years. Because of it, she can’t work full-time, often has to cancel plans with friends, can sleep only in snatches. She can’t remember the last time she had a good night of rest.

Hochhalter worries about the infections and intensifying pain that more years in her chair may bring. And while her friends pick out bridesmaid dresses, she dreads last-resort surgeries that could steal even more sensation from her body. “When I do that self-talk, like I’m going to die within five years of this pain,” she says, “I basically punch myself in the face, in my head, saying ‘No. You will not.’

“I have my down days,” she adds. “I just don’t stay there.”

After a chiropractic adjustment and an acupuncture session, Hochhalter leaves the center feeling realigned and relaxed, doubly so because it did not cost anything. “If I had to pay for it out of my own pocket, I would never go because I couldn’t afford it,” she says. Medical bills are a persistent source of stress. After Columbine, Hochhalter received money through an insurance settlement, as well as donations from sympathizers all over the world. Those funds, paired with paychecks from her part-time retail job, help cover what her health insurance won’t, like her two wheelchairs, shower chair, toilet seat, transfer boards, and medical supplies. Her catheters alone cost $800 per month. “I’m basically ordering the bare bones of what I need,” she says. According to national statistics on spinal cord injury, the estimated lifetime cost for a 25-year-old paraplegic is $2.3 million.

After 4 p.m., Hochhalter heads home to tidy up and feed her golden retriever, Sadie, and another dog she’s babysitting. An ardent animal lover, she volunteers at a dog rescue and fosters dogs until they can be adopted to new homes.

(Photograph provided by Anne Marie Hochhalter)

Later in the night, she chats on Facebook with a friend from high school. They discuss the new book by Sue Klebold, Dylan Klebold’s mother. A few days earlier, Hochhalter had posted an open letter to Sue on Facebook. She wanted Sue to know she didn’t harbor bitterness toward her. She didn’t expect it, but hundreds of people responded. A few told her to stop dredging up the past, to stop “playing the victim,” as if that one day did not shape every minute of her present, as if her pain were a choice. But most were supportive, even impressed, if also a little surprised. People forgive resentment, but forgiveness itself is unexpected.

Hochhalter has not always been so ready to let go. Years ago, Sue Klebold had reached out asking to meet. She refused. But over time she realized that anger is heavy. In the letter she quotes a friend: “‘Bitterness is like swallowing a poison pill and expecting the other person to die.’ It only harms yourself.” Hochhalter has more than enough pills to keep track of.

Around 1 a.m., Hochhalter signs off with her friend and gets ready for bed, swallowing two more capsules. Outside, strong winds rattle the windows. She rearranges the cushions around her body and settles in. Most days, she can manage to complete only one activity. Today was busier, and better. Content and exhausted, she lies awake for a while in the dark, fighting the pain, waiting to drift off.

[Featured photo: Barry Gutierrez]