Sunday, Apr 22, 2018
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Wounded Virginia Tech student craves normalcy on anniversary of worst modern mass shooting

BLACKSBURG, Va. - Heidi Miller is grateful for many things: her classes at Virginia Tech, tennis games - and anything that makes her smile.

She craves normalcy, treasuring a return to the routine she had as a freshman last year, before bullets lodged in her knee, thigh, and abdomen during a gunman's rampage in which 33 people were killed, including the shooter.

Ms. Miller, 20, remembers what happened that chilly April 16 last year, but can't recapture her thoughts when she came face to face with death in a Norris Hall classroom. She remembers snow flurries as she walked to class, but not how she felt when Seung-Hui Cho walked into the room with a gun in each hand.

Cho killed 25 students and five faculty members on the second floor of the building, arriving at Ms. Miller's intermediate French grammar class last. He left once and came back as she lay completely still on the floor in the back of the room.

"It's a small room, so no matter where he was, he was close," she said.

That room is where Cho, 23, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, but Ms. Miller didn't know that until police burst in and announced, "Shooter down."

A dozen of Ms. Miller's classmates died.

"I do have pretty vivid memories but I'm able to take myself back out of it really quick," she said.

Ms. Miller's actions this year have helped keep those thoughts from overtaking her. She's still studying French and has a double major in international studies and geography - and has made time for volunteer work.

She spent winter break working on the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans, and helped set up for a recent community service day on campus. She teaches every week at an elementary school in a French program started to honor her slain instructor, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak.

"I thought it was a really positive way to sort of cope with what had happened and do something meaningful," she said. "At the same time, whenever I do it I always smile and it's fun, so that's a good thing."

As the first anniversary of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history approaches, Ms. Miller will try to take it as "just another step on the way."

When days are hard, she said she recalls happier times.

"Even when it does get me down I can always go back ... and be like, 'You know, last week I had a really good Tuesday,'•" she said. "It's just a matter of time before another good day."

Last April 16, Ms. Miller spent four hours in surgery at Montgomery Regional Hospital to repair cartilage in her knee and a broken femur. One bullet remains lodged in her abdomen.

Of the 26 students that Virginia Tech lists as wounded last April, six graduated and the other 20 are back at school, university spokesman Larry Hincker said.

"I'm back to doing everything I used to do. Like, I played tennis yesterday," Ms. Miller said.

For most of the summer, Ms. Miller will be out of the country, taking a humanities class that Virginia Tech offers in Greece, then staying with a German family for an immersion program to learn that language.

Ms. Miller hadn't planned to go to Virginia Tech in the first place. She had thought of it as "a science-math big school" and didn't visit the campus until April of her senior year in high school. The friendly atmosphere and school spirit won her over.

"I never regretted, [never] thought twice about coming here," she said. "I just loved every minute of it, and I still do."

After the shootings, she didn't consider dropping out or transferring.

"Even in the hospital, I told my mom, 'I still want to go back in the fall, you know,'•" Ms. Miller said.

Being back on campus with others who endured the tragedy has been comforting, especially spending time with the handful of fellow French class survivors.

"We're still taking some of the same classes, so they've become some of my close friends," she said. "They are there for support in ways that some people might not be able to offer."

"You learn to appreciate certain things more than you normally used to," she said. "Just hanging out with my friends all of a sudden was much more meaningful."

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