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Wounded Tucson takes first steps in long journey of healing

TUCSON, Ariz. — The harrowing first week is over. Now as the national focus drifts away and a quietness returns to this laid-back college city, the profound pain is settling in as victims of the shooting rampage — and their tight-knit community — enter the toughest part of their healing process.

There are the parents who lost their 9-year-old daughter. A wife who will live with the haunting memory of her husband's dying moments, filled with her loving whispers after he used his body to shield her from the bullets. A 20-year-old intern for U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords stamped with the mental images of holding her to his chest and trying to stop the bleeding after a bullet passed through her head.

And then there's the city of Tucson, a picturesque desert community of sun-bronzed university students, retirees and artists that prides itself on being open-minded but is now linked to a heinous crime in which six people were killed and 13 others wounded.

"I happened to get hit by bullets and all of you, especially those who were there, you got wounded too," said Giffords' aide Pam Simon, 63, who was shot twice, as she met with survivors, witnesses and community members.

The months ahead will determine the lasting impact of those wounds, not only for the residents of Tucson but also the country, which spent the week reflecting whether a divisive political atmosphere, angry rhetoric or loose gun laws intersected with a young man in Tucson believed to dangerously mentally ill.

And what of accused gunman Jared Loughner's parents, who have remained secluded in their modest home, issuing only a brief statement expressing sorrow?

"This was a combat situation that hit people not prepared for combat," said Dr. Paul Ragan, a Vanderbilt University expert on gunshot victims. "There really is this profound assault on one's own sense of certainty in life and safety."

Survivors have found a sense of peace from the community's overwhelming support, rolling their wheelchairs past the cards, candles, and flowers blanketing the hospital lawn.

They also are consoled by the moments of human goodness — the heroic feat of the men who tackled the gunman, the woman who grabbed his empty magazine and the strangers who scampered under the hail of gunfire to help the wounded.

In addition to Giffords, two others injured in the attack remained at the hospital; both are listed in good condition.

In Tucson, the funerals, which began last week, continued Sunday. A funeral was to be held for Dorwan Stoddard, the retired construction worker who died while shielding his wife, Mavy.

Many of the 13 wounded survivors have undergone multiple surgeries and face months, possibly years, of physical therapy.

Survivors recognize the body often heals more quickly than the mind. "The wounds in our heart are a lot, lot deeper," Simon said. "They aren't going to heal in a long time."

Jenny Douglas, the daughter of Giffords' aide Ron Barber, 65, who was shot three times, said her father "remembers it all, very clearly."

Mavy Stoddard, 75, who was shot in the leg three times, also remembers. Her husband, Dorwan, 76, dove to the ground and covered her when the shooting started. She talked to him for 10 minutes, while he breathed heavily after being shot in the head. Then his breathing stopped.

Steve Siegel, of the Denver District Attorney's office, has seen the long-term fallout after helping people in the aftermath of some of the country's most horrific crimes — from the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing to the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings.

Some have been unable to function, losing jobs, turning to alcohol and drugs, even attempting suicide. Every time a tragedy occurs somewhere it can trigger traumatic feelings — an actual chemical response in bodies.

Trauma, he says, acts like a stone dropped in water, rippling out far beyond the crime scene.

Doctors say some victims could experience a near-constant mental replaying of the attack outside the Safeway supermarket.

When Bill Hileman went to see his wife, Susan, in the hospital after the shooting he found her in a morphine-induced haze, screaming out: " 'Christina! Christina! Let's get out of here. Let's get out of here.' "

Susan Hileman, 58, was holding the hand of her neighbor, 9-year-old Christina Taylor Green, the youngest victim, as they waited to see Giffords when the shooting erupted.

In a disturbing turn of events involving another shooting victim, J. Eric Fuller, 63, was arrested Saturday after he was accused of making threatening comments at an ABC News forum to which he'd been invited. Authorities said Fuller, a military veteran, would be "involuntarily committed" for mental health evaluation after confronting a local official of the conservative tea party movement with the words, "You're dead."

Psychiatrists and social workers are working to counsel the patients and their families.

"We've got to bring them back as a whole human being," said the victims' chief trauma doctor, Dr. Peter Rhee, who has treated soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There are many keys to solace and recovery, experts say.

About 500 people joined a walk for peace Sunday morning through Tucson neighborhoods, traveling from a local park to the memorial outside Giffords' office.

Nancy Levy, 44, brought her 9-year-old daughter, Maya, and a handmade sign that said, "We love you Gabby."

"We're heartbroken that anything like this could happen here," Levy said. She said she joined the walk with a friend "to make something positive out of something so negative, maybe make people think about being kind to each other."

Obama, at Wednesday night's memorial service in Tucson, implored a divided America to honor the victims by becoming a better country. There is a long journey of healing ahead.

Information from the Los Angeles Times was used in this report.

Wounded Tucson takes first steps in long journey of healing 01/16/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 7, 2011 1:56pm]
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