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Surviving Parkland: A teen's road to recovery after a mass school shooting

Gordon works with Kyle during a rehabilitation session at U18 Sports Medicine in Coral Springs. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.1 / 2
Kyle waits with his parents, Franz and Marie, in May before another surgery at Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Matt McClain.2 / 2

CORAL SPRINGS, Fla. - Marie Laman carefully removes a black bow tie from its box and slips it around her son's neck. It's his first bow tie, for his first formal dance. A moment for a mother to savor.

"I don't want to do this," Kyle says. He is slumped on his bed, tugging at the sleeves of his dress shirt. "This is so stupid."

Marie, still struggling with the tie's clasp, doesn't respond. Suddenly, Kyle shoves her away.

"You're choking me," he says. "Stop. Stop!"

He stands and retreats to the bathroom, slamming the door.

"Franz," Marie calls for her husband. "You need to take over." She goes to her bedroom and tells herself to take 10 deep breaths.

Once, Kyle had been excited for the Military Ball, a springtime event to honor the students in the junior ROTC program. He and his friends were going to rent a limo. They were going to dance all night.

But now the 15-year-old can't dance, thanks to a heavy medical boot that encases his foot and calf. Some other students are skipping the event entirely, still too traumatized to handle large crowds.

And three of Kyle's JROTC classmates who should be at the ball are dead. They were among the 17 people killed when a gunman attacked the freshman building at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, on Feb. 14. Kyle, who came face-to-face with the shooter in a third-floor hallway strewn with bodies, escaped with a bullet wound to his foot. Doctors told his parents it would be a year before he could walk normally again.

No one can say how long it will take his mental scars to heal.

It's April, two months since the day Kyle was shot. He still has the rest of this difficult school year ahead of him, then a long and lonely summer packed with doctor appointments instead of days at the beach. He and his parents, still learning to navigate the universal trials of adolescence, now also face the lingering horror of a mass shooting.

The teenager has days when he doesn't want to leave the house and can't focus at school. Sometimes his frustration flares in an angry outburst; sometimes he just wants to hole up in his room and play video games alone.

Marie and Franz aren't sure how much is standard 15-year-old behavior and what is the vestige of trauma. They don't know how to help or whether he can be helped at all.

"It's hard to raise a teenager as it is," Marie says. "You add this on top of it and it's nearly impossible. . . . I just don't want to mess him up even more than he already is."

On the night of the ball, it's Franz who finally leads Kyle back to his room and finishes tying the bow tie. Fishing trophies line the boy's bed frame and dramatic music streams from a video game on the computer - Digital Combat Simulator World.

"I look so fat in this thing," Kyle complains. The teen, who once spent weekends riding his dirt bike and chasing friends around an Airsoft arena with a BB gun, is self-conscious after weeks on bed rest and in a wheelchair. "It doesn't fit. I don't want to go to this stupid thing."

"Come on, ROTC," Franz says. "You want to fight in that" - he gestures toward the image of a fighter jet on the computer screen - "you got to wear that."

"You look nice," Marie says when the teenager is fully dressed.

But Kyle just grimaces. "Why is this so difficult?"

"You're making it difficult," his father replies.

Marie touches Kyle's shoulder. "Smile."

"I don't want to smile."

Kyle turns, heads outside, slams the door.

Marie looks at Franz and echoes their son: "This is so hard."

- - -

Of course, it had been hard before. Marie was always ragging on Kyle to clean his room. Franz tried to encourage him to stay focused on school.

"But that was normal," Marie says. They had worked so hard for normal - family dinners Thursday nights at the local Chinese buffet, weekend trips to Daytona and Disney, a house in a gated subdivision with a pool and a yard where they could play with their placid American bulldog, Katie. Their most persistent source of stress was shuttling the kids from school to sleepovers to extracurricular activities - dirt biking and Fire Explorers club for Kyle, singing lessons and acting auditions for his 12-year-old sister, Mya.

Marie, a benefits coordinator for the city of Boca Raton, Florida, had been raised by a single mother, with two siblings and few luxuries. Franz, a mechanic at a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, car dealership, immigrated from Jamaica with his family when he was 12.

"We tried to give them the life we didn't have," Marie said.

The previous fall, they had moved to this leafy Coral Springs neighborhood expressly so Kyle could attend Stoneman Douglas High - the best school in the county, in the safest city in the state.

Months later, with a single bullet, their normal was shattered.

Since the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School, at least 141 students, staffers and others have been killed in shootings at more than 200 schools and college campuses, a Washington Post analysis has found.

An additional 287 people have been injured, Kyle among them. There are scores of families like the Lamans - striving to support a loved one in physical and mental anguish, struggling to navigate an experience most parents can't imagine and most children can't put into words.

Marie was at work when she got Kyle's call. She could barely make sense of what he was saying over the chaos in the background.

"Mom, I was shot."

"What?"

"I was shot!"

A paramedic took the phone. They were at Kyle's school. They were taking him to Broward Health Medical Center in Fort Lauderdale. She should come right away.

Even as she ran to her car, "I was thinking it was a BB gun. I was thinking it was a little hole," Marie recalled. Kyle's JROTC program practiced with air rifles. There had probably been an accident. She knew how things go with kids.

And despite what had so recently taken place in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs, Texas, despite Orlando, Florida and San Bernardino, California and Aurora, Colorado and Newtown, Connecticut and Virginia Tech and Columbine, the thought of a mass shooting didn't cross her mind.

But emergency vehicles kept screaming past her as she drove down Interstate 95.

She found her son in the trauma unit. His foot was swathed in heavy bandages, and he was surrounded by what seemed like dozens of law enforcement agents, machine guns in their arms, their expressions grave.

"Mom," the teenager was crying. "There were bodies everywhere. There was a guy with an AR-15. I saw people die."

By then the hospital was on lockdown. Kyle was being wheeled into surgery. The bandages on his leg were removed, and Marie saw the softball-size chunk of flesh missing from the top of his right foot where a high-velocity bullet had torn through skin, soft tissue and muscle. There were little bits of grass and dirt in the wound.

"And then," she recalled. "It just got real."

Kyle's injury was not life-threatening, his doctors said, but it nearly cost him his ability to walk.

The bullet severed the major vessels that carry blood to the foot, as well as his tibialis anterior tendon, which contracts to lift the foot off the ground.

Had it struck any deeper, it would have hit bone and "exploded his foot," said Christopher Low, a reconstructive specialist who operated on Kyle.

In an eight-hour procedure five days after the shooting, Low and fellow surgeon Michael Cheung repaired the tendon and covered the wound with a flap of tissue taken from his left thigh. Painstakingly, they attached blood vessels in the transplanted tissue to the fragmented structures in his foot, restoring blood flow to the limb. Then they installed an external fixator to hold his ankle in place while the tendon healed.

"That operation essentially salvaged his leg," Cheung said.

Kyle awoke from the surgery screaming, Franz recalled. The memory haunts him still. "There was nothing I could do."

The morning after the military ball, Marie learns that the event included a moment of silence for three slain members of the JROTC program: Peter Wang, 15; Alaina Petty, 14; and Martin Duque, 14.

There were also plans to honor Kyle with a Purple Heart, but the boy asked for the medal to be given to him in private. He didn't want them to make a big deal about him, and he hates any mention of the shooting.

"It was remembering," is all he says. "I didn't like it."

But reminders are inescapable: In the hallways of his school, where he now moves in a wheelchair and can tolerate only a few hours at a time. In the #MSDStrong placards posted in restaurant windows and the motivational messages painted on the mirror at his physical-therapy clinic. In the visitors who flock to his house bearing casseroles and good intentions, wanting to know how he feels. In strangers' lingering stares and unsubtle whispers: "That's one of the kids who was shot."

Sometimes, Kyle says, he wishes he had died in the shooting. He didn't think survival would be so hard.

"I just want to be normal," he tells his mother.

"You are normal."

"I'm not."

Marie doesn't know how to respond.

"There's no mom handbook on this," she says.

She and her husband probe around the edges of Kyle's pain. Franz draws him into the garage to apply new decals to the dirt bike he still can't ride. Marie scrolls through photos of her son on Instagram, peering at his facial expressions in an attempt to divine how the 15-year-old is feeling.

She drives to a child psychiatrist in Fort Lauderdale to talk about treatment. But when she brings up the visit, Kyle blurts out "No!"

Then, in a joking tone, "The only therapy I need is Jesus."

Marie gives him a stern look but doesn't press the issue. A parent has to pick her battles.

So many times, when Kyle has gone days without showering, or spent hours playing video games alone in his room, or asked yet again to be picked up early from school, she has told him, "You're at a crossroads right now."

"What happened can tear you down. It can make you weaker. Or it can build you up," she says. "Try to take this negative event and make it a positive."

This, she believes, is her job now. She couldn't keep her son safe. But she can help make him strong.

But Kyle has never been one to seize the spotlight. He's not like those kids at his school, the ones who were tweeting about gun control even as they hid in their classrooms, whose eloquent rage turned their tragedy into a rallying cry for change.

Sometimes, he's not even sure he agrees with those kids. Kyle, who dreams of entering the Air Force as a fighter pilot, has always been more comfortable with guns than most of his classmates. Before the shooting, he spent much of his free time in Airsoft arenas, shooting BB pellets out of replica rifles. The only thing keeping him from playing right now is the heavy boot on his injured foot.

"I like guns," he says. "I like shooting at things. But, like, targets. Not people."

What Kyle really wants, more than any megaphone, is to get back in the arena, back on his bike, back on his feet. To be the boy he was on Feb. 13.

- - -

The first time Marianne Sheehan met Kyle, "I knew I was seeing someone who was going to need help," she says. "But no parent wants to accept that or see it."

Sheehan, a 26-year-old Air Force veteran and firefighter, had never met the teenager before. She had flown down from Vermont in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas shooting to deliver a handmade wooden American flag to the school. Mutual friends connected her with Kyle's family, and she offered to come by his hospital room with her service dog, Cooper.

The big German shepherd helped her cope with her experiences in the military, she explained to Kyle's parents. Maybe he could help their son.

They invited her in.

Sheehan wound up staying in Parkland for three weeks, spending all her time with Kyle and other students who had been hurt in the shooting. When she returned to Vermont, she gave the teen her phone number and told him to use it whenever he needed.

Shortly after Kyle came home from the hospital, when he was still sleeping on a cot in the living room because he couldn't walk up stairs, he called in a panic.

"Walk me through what happened," Sheehan said.

Everyone else had gone to sleep. He had turned off his video game. And then it was quiet.

"Do you remember, was it quiet right before the shooting?" she asked.

"Yeah."

"Okay," she reassured him. "Your brain is trying to keep you alive and it's going to take random things from that day and react to them. So how can we make it not quiet?"

The next day she called Marie and explained, and the Lamans put a noisy fan next to Kyle's bed.

"Can't you be my counselor?" Kyle asked Sheehan. "You're the only one I can talk to."

"That broke my heart a little bit," Sheehan recalls. But it's why she keeps coming back.

At the end of April, Sheehan flies to Parkland to help Kyle pick up his new service dog - a German shepherd, like Cooper.

A crowd gathers at the concrete loading dock of the Fort Lauderdale airport cargo center - friends, camera-toting reporters, public-relations staffers from the nonprofit group that provided his dog. There's a chorus of coos as the 14-week-old puppy emerges from its plastic crate, all big brown eyes and oversize feet.

The dog's legs are trembling, and Kyle rubs its head reassuringly. "Bruce," he says - the name given by the dog's trainers.

It is hot in the parking lot. The cameras follow boy and dog everywhere they go. Sheehan recognizes Kyle's unhappy squint. "We should go home," she announces.

Kyle hustles back to the car as fast as his boot will allow. He and Bruce have already clambered inside when one of the PR women asks to get a picture of the whole family.

The teenager reluctantly acquiesces.

But in the car, finally alone, he is incandescent. He wraps his arms around his puppy, touching his nose to its wet one.

"He likes me already," he tells his father.

Bruce pees on the carpet within 20 minutes of arriving at the Lamans' home. Marie is exasperated - "I need another dog like I need a hole in my head," she mutters.

It doesn't dampen Kyle's mood.

Curled up on the couch with his puppy, he croons: "I love you. You're beautiful, bubba."

Marie sits beside him. He looks up.

"He's got such a nice smell," he tells Marie.

She slides over, closer to her son.

"He's cute," she says. "He's so lovable."

"Yeah."

Marie puts her arm around Kyle. "So now you'll be happy?"

- - -

Sunny Florida spring turns to stormy summer. Kyle undergoes a fifth surgery and switches from a boot to a brace. Bruce grows into his big paws and overlong legs.

And life hasn't gotten any easier.

Kyle refuses to go to his physical-therapy appointment, even though they just missed one because Marie lost track of what day of the week it was. Mya wants to sleep over at a friend's house, but her parents won't let her.

"I don't feel comfortable," Marie says. "Just stay home. It's safe."

Franz is pulling 10-hour days at the car dealership - "If there's no work, there's no money" - and trying not to feel guilty that he can't spend more time at home.

Kyle keeps forgetting to walk Bruce, and the puppy has peed on the carpet so many times the Lamans decide to rip it up and replace it with a wooden floor.

"He's a pain in the ass," Kyle says of the dog.

"Give me strength," Marie says of her son.

"It's a new kind of hard," Sheehan says of the family, when she flies back to Florida over Memorial Day to check in on Kyle and the puppy. The reality of what happened is finally sinking in: This is now their normal.

Certain things begin to make sense. The way Kyle asks whether they can order takeout instead of going out for their family dinners. His strange new fascination with zombie apocalypses and flesh-eating bacteria.

He doesn't like being in public, with all those people looking at him, Franz realizes.

He's afraid of dying, Marie says.

The starkest realization comes when the Broward County Sheriff's Office releases an animation of how the shooting unfolded. In it, a black dot representing the gunman moves methodically through the hallways of Stoneman Douglas's Building 12. Green dots representing students and blue ones for teachers turn yellow as they are struck by bullets.

The dots change to purple when someone dies.

Watching it, Franz and Marie finally piece together what happened to their son that day.

Kyle had been in study hall when the fire alarm sounded. In the animation, the boy is just one of a cluster of green dots that leave the classroom and flood the third-floor hallway. Then the black dot emerges from the stairwell.

Most of the green dots flee, others turn yellow, and Marie recalls what her son has told her about the moment he was shot. The way the crowded hallway suddenly cleared, leaving Kyle directly in the gunman's line of sight. The way the 15-year-old, primed by years in the Airsoft arena, dove toward an alcove as the man in black fired.

Here the dots become hard to follow. But Franz knows that two others hid in the alcove with Kyle - his friend Tyler and a third boy who had been shot in the knee. He knows that Kyle told the others they needed to leave, but the other injured student couldn't walk, and try as they might, the two boys couldn't lift him.

So Tyler and Kyle ran.

Fueled by adrenaline that overpowered his pain, Kyle raced past bodies and bloodstained walls, down three flights of stairs, out of the building and across a field, where he finally stumbled into an off-duty police officer, Sgt. Jeff Heinrich, who bandaged his wounds and got him to the EMTs.

In the animation, the black dot returns to the alcove where Kyle had been hiding. And the yellow dot that remained there - the boy who couldn't run - changes to purple.

"He executed that kid," Franz says. "That was horrible."

But what happened to Kyle is its own kind of horrible, Franz continues: "People think it's just his foot. But he has to live with that."

- - -

A trauma therapist starts making weekly visits to the house. She talks with Kyle for one, two hours - as long as he needs.

Kyle doesn't always tell Marie what he discusses with the counselor. But she can tell it's helping him.

"We're figuring things out," Marie says.

In July a local pastor calls Marie and says his church raised money to pay for Kyle and Mya to attend a week-long water-sports camp. The summer camp's owner specially adjusts a wakeboard to fit around Kyle's injured leg.

On the third day, he is finally able to knee-board.

"Mom!" he tells Marie at pickup. "I did it."

In that moment, he sounds just like the old Kyle.

Still, Marie worries. She worries about the two additional surgeries awaiting her son. She worries about his mood swings, his loneliness, whether he is miserable. She worries about what happens next school year, when he has to go back full time.

She worries about the upcoming trial for the accused gunman. It's so hard for the 15-year-old to talk about the attack or think about the person who shot him and killed his friends. But Kyle will probably have to testify, since prosecutors are seeking the death penalty. "I want him to die," the boy says.

And Marie worries about the news that keeps breaking like a recurring nightmare: Ten dead in a shooting at a high school in Texas. Five killed in a shooting at a newspaper in Maryland.

"It's nonstop," she says. "What is wrong with the world?"

Some of the other parents the Lamans know have joined safety commissions, raised funds for memorials, flown to Washington to fight for stricter gun laws.

She's glad they're doing it, she says, and grateful.

But it's not something she can be a part of.

"Our fight is at home," she says. "Our fight is helping our son heal. And it's never ending."

---

This article was written by Sarah Kaplan, a reporter for The Washington Post.

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