When Will the Bullet Hit?

by Kathryn M. Wiesendanger

I was supposed to die on May 23, 2014. The shooter intended to use 600 rounds of ammunition to murder all 52 women living in my sorority house. I left the front door fifteen minutes before he arrived. Two women died on my front lawn, but it was supposed to be me.

I was supposed to die on May 23, 2014. I would have just turned 20 years old. I wouldn’t yet have worked at a brewery, learned how to surf, or travelled to ten European countries. I wouldn’t yet have discovered my passion for medicine, graduated from college or worked as an emergency medical scribe. I wouldn’t yet have fallen deeply in love, moved across the world or completed my first year of medical school at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. I wouldn’t yet have had the opportunity to live, because that night it was supposed to be me.

I was supposed to die on May 23, 2014. After that night I lived in fear. Newly installed bulletproof windows, security cameras and round-the-clock police surveillance only perpetuated the unease within our community. The streets of Isla Vista, once filled with enthusiastic students walking, bicycling and skateboarding, were eerily barren. This new and unfamiliar silence, however, was consistently interrupted by the imaginary pop, pop, pop of gunfire in my head: the same gunfire that left six of my classmates dead. I dreaded walking alone at night, the deafening thud of my heartbeat against my chest, radiating up through my throat. I would quicken my pace, anxiously awaiting the bullet at my back as I ran to my next destination. I spent the past five years running from illusory gunfire, hoping it would hit, because it was supposed to be me.

I was supposed to die on May 23, 2014. With 36,383 intended gun deaths[1] and 100,120 intended gun injuries in the United States every year[2], imagine the breadth of American people reciting this same debilitating mantra every single day. This biproduct of gun violence in America is a new brand of chronic PTSD, a permanent adrenaline drip forcing us to scan every crowded space and search for exits when we gather, worship or (try to) celebrate.

I was supposed to die on May 23, 2014, but I survived. For reasons I’ll never know, I made the decision to leave fifteen minutes earlier, and it saved my life. But, paradoxically, this did not give me any relief. I was not grateful that I had not been there, I had no sense of security. Life did not go back to normal as I would have expected. I was consumed with thoughts about that day, about my choice to leave when I did. I questioned how much of our lives we attribute to our deliberate actions, compared to random chance, to coincidence, to luck?

Once I began to accept this lack of control, I was able to better address the conflicting emotions I had and sought forgiveness from the universe for being the one that got away. I’ve since come to terms with this unanswerable question, and have emerged with a new lust for life on behalf of the peers that I lost. While it was a sense of adventure that led me to pursue my medical education in a new country, I am especially grateful to finally be liberated from the daily fear and exhausting repetition of one particular thought: when will the bullet hit?

[1] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Fatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of most recent available data: 2013 to 2017.

[2] Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) Nonfatal Injury Reports. A yearly average was developed using five years of most recent available data: 2013 to 2017.

This piece was first posted on affirmresearch.org and it is reproduced here with the author’s permission.

Kathryn M. Wiesendanger is a California native and second year medical student at the
Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland. She completed her BSc in Biopsychology at the
University of California, Santa Barbara where she was personally affected by the gun
violence epidemic. She has since dedicated herself to fighting for gun reform and advocating for gun violence research in America while pursuing a career in emergency medicine.