HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. — Those who treated the most intense trauma in the aftermath of the Highland Park mass shooting put their own emotions on hold that day to help others heal. Now a year later they unpack their wounds with hope for a better future.
It was just one week after the July Fourth shooting when WGN’s Medical Watch team first visited with emergency room nurse Deb Schmidt at the Highland Park Hospital.
“I will never forget it. It was war wounds,” she said.
Now, one year later, she takes time to reflect.
“I didn’t want to admit that I needed help, even though in my heart I knew I needed it,” she said. “Mine was a lot of anxiety, which I’m not an anxious person.”
She was diagnosed with PTSD.
“I kind of got lost driving. I grew up here. I know how to get to work and just got lost,” she said.
She took nearly six months off and underwent therapy.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to come back to the ER bedside, and the minute I crossed the threshold it was like exposure therapy to see if I was going to be able to handle it,” she said. “The minute I came back through, the passion was there. As healthcare providers, we stuff what we see. We don’t bring it home and try not to bring it home. And one day we stuff too much and your cup overflows.”
Highland Park Hospital President Gabrielle Cummings remembers the chaos of July 4, 2022.
“I remember running down the hallway to get chargers because families needed chargers for their phones. It was a very fluid and dynamic day,” she said.
She also braced for the possibility of the shooter’s return — as a patient.
“I think we had a responsibility and a calling to take care of everyone and anyone who walked through our doors, right? Including the shooter, right?” she said. “It would have been really difficult to do, but I have complete confidence the team would have done it. And we would have cared for him like we cared for the other 30 or so gunshot wound victims who came to our hospital.”
In the weeks following the shooting, she received letters of support from fellow hospital leaders around the country and noted her own signs of trauma.
“I was having nightmares. I had nightmares every night probably for about a week. I couldn’t focus and I pride myself on being focused,” she said.
Now her focus is healing, for her staff and herself.
“I have a personal passion to reset the day, to bring joy to myself and to others and to celebrate life despite the fact that he tried to take life and joy from so many of us,” she said
Trauma surgeon Dr Ana Velez-Rosborough took care of then 8-year-old Cooper Roberts, who was critically wounded and ultimately paralyzed as a result of the attack.
“As soon as I saw him, I knew we needed to operate,” she said. “It’s hard, but especially when someone that young.”
She has since left Highland Park for a new position in New York, but she stays in touch with Cooper and his family.
“It makes me just so happy to know he’s getting to live his life,” she said. “And it’s not the life anyone expected for him, right? But he’s making the best of it, and I don’t think anything will stop him. In terms of my professional life, it really cemented in my brain and in my heart this is what I wanted to do.”
“An the drive home on the Fourth of July that evening all the fireworks started, and I love fireworks, it brings me so much joy,” Cummings said. “And for the first time in my life, it brought me terror and fear.”
“It has changed all of us forever,” Schmidt said.
“I will not be a victim. I will not let this situation or the person who inflicted the situation on an entire community be the victor. I won’t let him win,” Cummings said. “So I look forward to replacing that fear and that terror with joy.”
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