Parkland shooting survivor learns to live with memory-related disorder
As part of healing journey, student shares her Parkland nightmare
PARKLAND, Fla. – Julianna Gentile was sitting in the back of classroom 1216. She working as a teacher's assistant at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School's freshman building when a deranged gunman killed Martin Duque, Luke Hoyer and Gina Montalto in the hallway.
Ashley Baez was wounded in the women's restroom. It was about 2:21 p.m. The vibrating sound from the gunshots caused dust to fall from drop-ceiling tiles, which activated the campus fire alarms. She stopped grading papers and dove under the teacher's desk.
"I remember just jumping up and everyone jumped up and we're all confused, looking at each other," Julianna said. "Like, we had a fire alarm earlier in the day, so I was kinda confused,"
Seconds later, the gunman fired his AR-15 rifle into her classroom twice, killing Alyssa Alhadeff, Alaina Petty and Alex Schachter. There were five others wounded. While Julianna was hiding under her teacher's desk, the gunman killed 11 more people and wounded 11 others.
"Right before I got up, I saw people, my classmates and I just looked and I just ran," Julianna said. "I was hysterical, crying. I couldn’t breathe."
Her life hasn't been the same since.
Hours later, she would learn her friend Meadow Pollack, an 18-year-old senior who was getting ready to go to Lynn University in Boca Raton, had died in the shooting.
Through the Find My Friends app, an Apple device feature that uses global positioning system technology to track users, she and her friends assumed that if her phone was still in the building -- it was likely she was dead.
"We got really close junior and senior year. I would tell her everything. I would go to Meadow for everything. She would give you the best advice and I would tell her all my boy problems, tell her everything," Julianna said. "She always gave the best advice. She was always so happy. She always had a smile on her face, and it breaks my heart that she’s not here today."
Julianna, now 19 years old, said she feels grateful to be alive, but it has been a tough year. With a post traumatic stress disorder diagnosis, she has trouble sleeping. Other symptoms of the memory-related disorder include flashblacks, distorted feelings of guilt, frightening thoughts and being easily startled.
"I feel like I need protection or I keep my pepper spray on me and just, you know, and you'd be able to defend myself ... Every little sound scares me here and there," she said. "Like I am just traumatized. I think about it. I dream about it."
Part of her healing journey, she said, includes communicating how she feels. She said there are painful images -- like the lifeless bodies of Alyssa and Alaina on the ground -- that will likely haunt her for the rest of her life.
"Her best friend, when we were under the desk, she was next to us too," Julianna said. "She said, 'Alyssa has gotten shot! Alyssa has gotten shot!' And my heart just dropped."
Aside from Alyssa and Meadow, 14-year-old students Alaina, Alexander, Martin and Gina, and Luke, 15, the gunman also killed seven more teenagers: 14-year-old students Cara Loughran and Jaime Guttenberg, Peter Wang, 15, Carmen Schentrup, 16, and 17-year-old students Helena Ramsay, Joaquin Oliver and Nicholas Dworet. School staff Scott Biegel, 35, Aaron Feis, 37, and Christopher Hixon, 49, also died.
Julianna decided to get a tattoo of Meadow's name with a pair of angel wings to remember "the happy times."
Through it all, she said she hasn't felt alone. The Parkland community "has been so awesome and everyone just all came together. We’re all grieving together and it's like family and that's what really has helped me."
Message from the National Institute of Mental Health: If you know someone who may be experiencing PTSD, the first and most important thing you can do is to help him or her get the right diagnosis and treatment. You may need to help the person make an appointment and then visit the doctor together. Encourage the person to stay in treatment, or to seek different treatment if symptoms don’t get better after six to eight weeks.
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