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3 Victims of Mass Shootings, on the Pain and Change That Came After

Three survivors from three separate mass killings share how they’ve changed—physically, mentally, and spiritually—since the day of the tragedy they experienced.

ALEXANDER DWORET was in English class at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, when a bullet grazed the back of his head. Among the 17 killed on February 14, 2018, was his older brother, Nick.

Therapy is something that I cherish now. Right after the shooting, I started to see a therapist and do EMDR. [See “The ABCs of PTSD Recovery” on page 83.] Three years ago, I was secluded; I stuck to myself. I see her weekly now and I can tell her anything I want.

I have my brother’s thumbprint tattooed on my wrist with the words “brothers forever” in his handwriting. My family went to Hawaii recently and we all got matching tattoos of the Mokulua islands in honor of Nick’s dream to go there.

I take my health a lot more seriously now. The gym helps me mentally. Pushing weight can help me push out emotions that bottle up. I’ve lost weight and gained muscle. It’s nice to see something change in my life.

I think hardship showed me that you can push through. You can learn from it and evolve. But it takes time.

JEFF XCENTRIC has gone through 12 surgeries over the past five years to repair the damage inflicted by gunfire that struck him at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando on June 12, 2016.

I bled out on the floor for three and a half hours. If it wasn’t for blood donations, I wouldn’t be alive. That’s why I advocate now and work with OneBlood [a Florida-based donation center].

Prior to Pulse, I had zero patience. I had to be in bed for a year and be taken care of. Through the long healing process, I was forced to learn patience.

Survivors of the Boston [Marathon] bombing came to the hospital to guide me—with my health but also with the media and what to expect next. That meant so much to me. It’s why I reach out to survivors of tragedy. We are all interconnected in some way.

I got an ancestry DNA test and had something like 20 different results. Life is short, but now more than ever, my goal is to travel to every country in my blood.

I’ve noticed that people who are very strong are people who have been through stuff. It takes a lot out of you to be a strong person.

JONATHAN SMITH was shot in the neck, fractured his collarbone, cracked a rib, and bruised a lung on October 1, 2017, at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas.

The bullet is still lodged in there. The doctors told me they can’t remove it without causing severe injuries or possibly death. I’ve decided that I’m alive and removing it isn’t worth the risk, even if it causes pain.

I tried to end it all because I couldn’t deal with the pain and suffering. I’ve learned that strength can still be found in the deepest places inside a person. No matter what situation we have, we can reach out for help.

When I started softball again after a year of not playing, my teammates didn’t want me to play for a while, but softball is my getaway. That’s where I relieve stress.

My family grew from 20 to 30 people—my relatives—to 20,000 people who were strangers to me at one point but I now recognize as my Route 91 family. Whatever the crisis might be, nothing is going to stop us from being in constant communication with one another.

Now every day feels like I’ve won the Super Bowl.

A version of this article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Men’s Health.

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  • Posted on July 28, 2021