The Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999, in unincorporated Jefferson County remains the worst mass shooting to have ever taken place at an American high school.
Nurse Kari Goerke remembers the moment she learned about Columbine with clarity.
“I can tell you where I was standing, what I was wearing, what was going on at the hospital, just like if it were this morning,” she said.
The tragedy, in which Columbine High School students Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed a dozen classmates and a teacher and wounded more than 20 others before taking their own lives, is approaching its 10th anniversary.
Goerke, chief nursing officer at Swedish Medical Center, was the head operating room nurse the day of the shooting. On March 18 she spoke about that day with a crowd of 90 gathered at the Denver Country Club for the ENDOW Catholic Professio-nal Women’s Luncheon.
ENDOW, short for Educating on the Nature and Dignity of Women, is a nonprofit organization that promotes the new feminism of the Catholic Church.
“We wanted to do something with the Lenten theme of suffering,” Terry Polakovic, co-founder and executive director of ENDOW, told the audience. “We wanted to honor that and recognize it.”
“All of us suffer,” noted the soft-spoken Goerke. A cradle Catholic and a member of ENDOW, the nurse said there is a reason for suffering.
“It’s part of (the) divine plan to help us grow in our faith,” she said with conviction.
Recalling the fateful day of the massacre, Goerke said that after learning of it from a phone call, she was grateful for the few moments she had as she walked down a long hallway toward her work “to reflect, pray and plan.”
The hospital received four of the injured students.
Because the victims don’t wish to be defined by the tragedy, Goerke kept their identities private. As she remembered the details of that day, she often had to pause to let tears pass.
The first boy Goerke saw had a bullet wound to the spine and through his abdomen. The first girl she saw had a gunshot to her right chest.
“I remember taping the rings on her fingers,” Goerke said, as she described prepping the teen for surgery. Knowing she would need to use clothing and jewelry to help identify the youths, Goerke removed the girl’s watch and put it in her pocket so she could give it to the young patient’s family later.
A second girl was reported to have multiple gunshot wounds to the chest and abdomen.
“The second girl was awake and sobbing,” Goerke said. “She didn’t really know what had happened to her. We really didn’t know what had happened to her. She looked like she had little knife and bullet wounds all over her chest.”
The wounds, Goerke learned, were caused by shrapnel from one of the improvised bombs that went off. It was the first time she had witnessed such an injury.
“We hadn’t been in a war zone before,” she said.
To calm her young patient, Goerke talked to her about the recent prom and about the then-upcoming graduation.
The fourth victim, another boy, needed surgery on his chest, abdomen and spine, and repair to his left arm.
Despite the life and death urgency of the work, ringing phones, anxious family members in waiting rooms, and police and media descending on the hospital, Goerke described an aura of professionalism and calm.
“I thought it was going to be chaotic, but it really wasn’t,” she said. “(The staffers) all knew what they were doing and were taking care of their jobs and moving forward.”
The community support from within and outside the hospital was tremendous, Goerke said. People with elective surgeries rescheduled them to free up operating rooms. Hospitals sent equipment, people and supplies. Housekeeping and maintenance staff guarded doors to protect the patients. Doctors who had heard about the tragedy simply showed up.
“It was a tremendous relief to walk into the ED (emergency department) and see a wall of white coats,” Goerke said.
All four patients lived. All the victims treated at hospitals lived. It’s one of the miracles Goerke counted that day.
Why the tragedy happened is due to sin, Goerke said, noting that with free will comes the choice to do good or evil. We are all guilty of sin, she emphasized. And Christ’s suffering, death and resurrection is the instrument God used to redeem us of our sin.
“Christ’s suffering was the perfect example of what we’re supposed to do,” Goerke said. “It showed obedience, humility and service.
“God showed us,” she added, “that there’s nothing he wouldn’t want us to do he hasn’t already done himself.”
Noting that the Acts of the Apostles (14:22) says, “through many tribulations, we must enter the kingdom of heaven,” Goerke said, “(God) is telling us we are made worthy through suffering.”
Suffering can transform us, strengthen our faith and unite us with Christ, she said.
With their intuition, empathy and desire to connect with people, women especially are called to help others carry their crosses and share Christ’s redemptive love, Goerke said.
“That is the triumph of this tragedy in us and in others, and is our salvation,” she said.
Printed with permission from the Denver Catholic Register, newspaper for the Archdiocese of Denver.