RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tomorrow marks one year since a gunman shot and killed 10 students and teachers at Santa Fe High School, southeast of Houston, Texas. Thirteen more were injured. For the past year, reporter Laura Isensee with Houston Public Media has been following one student whose life will forever be divided in half - everything before that gunman walked into her classroom and everything after. A warning - this story includes details that may disturb some listeners.
LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: A few days after Thanksgiving, Sarah Salazar gets together with friends and family at her mom's house.
SARAH SALAZAR: Royce, you didn't even give me a hug. It's my birthday.
ISENSEE: Sarah's turning 17.
SALAZAR: Give me a hug.
ISENSEE: There are presents on a table and a cake. Sarah's mom, Sonia Lopez, offers up a prayer.
SONIA LOPEZ: Dear Heavenly Father, we just want to thank you for today for Sarah's birthday and for Sarah's life, that she's still with us.
ISENSEE: Sarah lives with her mom and four sisters. They and her best friend Emma plus more than a dozen others gather round.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy...
ISENSEE: It's clear this birthday is special because, for Sarah, it almost didn't happen.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) ...Dear Sarah. Happy birthday to you.
ISENSEE: On the morning of May 18, 2018, Sarah was starting her favorite class, art, at Santa Fe High when, according to police, a young man walked in with a shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol. Students ran to the supply closet. Sarah was the last one in. They closed the door, but the gunman held his shotgun up to the small window in the door.
TRENTON BEAZLEY: So we're in there. And then shot was fired, and then she was hit in, like, the face, shoulder area.
ISENSEE: Trenton Beazley felt someone tug at his back. Sarah was bleeding and gasping for help. Trenton grabbed her jacket.
BEAZLEY: I put it around her shoulder and then tied a knot so the bleeding would stop.
ISENSEE: Sarah remembers feeling strangely calm. She prayed to God until she passed out.
SALAZAR: And I was not really scared 'cause if it was my time to go to heaven, then it was my time.
ISENSEE: But it wasn't her time. Later that day, Sarah would have two emergency surgeries, one to stem the bleeding in her neck, the other for her left shoulder.
BRANDON LOW: You know, the joint where the shoulder meets up with the socket was just destroyed, hardly even visible on X-ray, it was in so many pieces.
ISENSEE: Dr. Brandon Low was the surgeon on call. He says the gunman appeared to have used a cartridge full of small lead pellets. Low removed many but not all of them, and he couldn't help but think.
LOW: Oh, gosh. You know, this is a 16-year-old girl, and this is a terrible injury that is going to bother her to some degree forever.
ISENSEE: In the weeks that followed, Sarah began a grueling recovery. Her jaw was fractured, so her mouth had to be wired shut. She lost 20 pounds. She also had a complete shoulder replacement. Recovery early on included aquatic physical therapy, but then insurance stopped covering it.
SALAZAR: There's times when, like, I'm like, dang. I could really use my arm right now. So (laughter) it makes me frustrated when I can't.
ISENSEE: Taking a shower, getting dressed, putting her long black hair in a ponytail - it's all hard. But perhaps the hardest part of Sarah's recovery is talking about it. She's always been quiet. But since the shooting, Sarah keeps to herself more. She sleeps a lot. She's seen a counselor at school a few times.
SALAZAR: She says that I keep my emotions in.
ISENSEE: And the counselor tells her that's not good.
SALAZAR: I mean, I do do that. And so emotionally, I've not come that far because I try keeping it to myself.
ISENSEE: Sometimes even her best friend doesn't know what's going on. Emma Lovejoy met Sarah in first grade.
EMMA LOVEJOY: She does what I do whenever I'm bothered by something, just kind of puts on this front that makes everybody think that everything's, like, going all great and everything. But, you know, there's still things that are bothering her.
ISENSEE: Almost every day, Emma and her grandmother pick Sarah up for school. Sarah doesn't want to ride the bus anymore because it triggers bad memories from the day of the shooting. Sarah's four sisters also help. They'll grab heavy groceries, fix her hair and just have fun.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's the way to go.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I never go out hopeless (laughter).
ISENSEE: The family hosts a game night most Fridays. Tonight Sarah is dealing the cards for Uno.
SALAZAR: OK. No cheating, Sophie.
ISENSEE: Sarah doesn't go out as much as she used to. So game night brings the fun to her.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Woo, that was better.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Do you skip Star (ph)?
ISENSEE: On this game night, nearly a year has passed since the shooting. The hospital bed where Sarah used to sleep is gone. So are the stuffed animals she got from well-wishers. Still, as the anniversary nears, Sarah says those emotions she keeps inside, they're getting intense.
SALAZAR: Some days, I'll just wake up and be like, oh, today's not going to be a good day. Just like, oh, no. I just want to go back to bed. Or just, like, throughout the day, I guess I'll be having an OK day, and then I'll just get sad. I don't know.
ISENSEE: At school, Sarah says anytime the class door opens, she has to check who's there.
SALAZAR: Like, it's just been a year. But it doesn't feel like it because this year's gone by so fast. I don't, like, have time to process things.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We're going to do our little safety check, OK, guys? Can you tell us your full name?
SALAZAR: Sarah Salazar.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And your birthday?
SALAZAR: November 27, 2001.
ISENSEE: A few weeks ago, Sarah was back in a green hospital gown, nurses around her bed. This is her seventh surgery since the shooting.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And Sarah, what are we doing for you today?
SALAZAR: Removing the pellets.
ISENSEE: Some of the shotgun pellets are still in her body and have pushed her lead levels four times past the acceptable limit. The lead makes her tired and nauseous and worries her mom.
LOPEZ: I just can't wait till they're gone, you know, all those pellets. Hopefully, they won't have to go back in after these are removed.
ISENSEE: As Sarah gets her anesthesia, her mom hugs her one more time.
LOPEZ: God bless you.
ISENSEE: Nurses wheel Sarah away to the OR, and her mom calls out that a lot of people are praying for everyone helping Sarah. The doors close, and Sonia waits for her daughter, Sarah Grace, to come back to her. For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LATTIMORE'S "ON THE DAY YOU SAW THE DEAD WHALE")
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