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Nurses still wrapped up in Columbine

Peers recognize 14 who helped the wounded but were unprepared for lasting effects of trauma

By Ann Carnahan
Denver Rocky Mountain News Staff Writer

In her mind's eye, nurse Stephanie Higgins can still see Columbine shooting victim Lisa Kreutz being wheeled into the operating room.

"She had been shot in the shoulder and hand and both arms. She was awake. She could talk. She was so strong and so brave," Higgins said. "She was just a teen-ager, and she wasn't hysterical or anything. That will stick with me."

Nurse Denise Maxwell still sees the anxious faces of Lance Kirklin's family as they waited April 20 outside an operating room at Denver Health Medical Center.

"The despair, the unknown. 'What is going to happen to my child?' It's heart-piercing," Maxwell said.

Nurse Shirley Casady will never forget the first time she laid eyes on Anne Marie Hochhalter. The 17-year-old's chest was cut open and a doctor was massaging her heart.

"I didn't even see her face. I was totally focused on what we needed to do to save her life," said Casady, who works at Swedish Medical Center. "I had no idea what she looked like."

The three nurses were among 14 honored Monday night for their work with Columbine shooting victims. The Association of Operating Room Nurses held a dinner for them at the Ranch Country Club in Westminster.

Nearly two months after the tragedy, the nurses say images of that day remain fresh in their minds.

They are surprised by how deeply the tragedy still affects them. Usually, they said, they can detach themselves from the suffering around them.

"I've been in on a lot of traumas. This affected me most and for the longest time," Casady said.

She attributed that partly to the media attention. "We knew all the details. You couldn't help but be totally wrapped up in it."

After Columbine, some of the nurses said, they had trouble sleeping for weeks. Debriefing sessions helped, even though some initially balked at attending.

"I kept thinking I don't need to go to a debriefing. We do this stuff all the time," Higgins said. But at the session, "all of us were quite tearful. It was surprising to me how emotional we all were."

They talked about leaving the hospital the night of April 20.

"Driving home, I felt myself getting sadder and sadder and sadder," said nurse Sharon Luhrs of Swedish. "When I got home, I just cried my eyes out. I hugged my 14-year-old son all night."

Casady said she wept so much driving home to Greeley that, at times, she could barely see the road.

The nurses said they were compelled to visit the young victims. Luhrs looked in on all four of those at Swedish, "just to see them sitting up, talking to their families. You felt attached to them."

Casady visited Anne Marie two weeks after the tragedy. When Anne Marie had been in surgery April 20, doctors had hovered over her and drapes had covered her face.

"I had to see her face," Casady said. "She was still critically ill. She couldn't talk. I took her hand and said, 'I think of you daily. You're in my prayers daily.'

"And then I broke down again," she said, her voice catching at the memory.

June 15, 1999