Wounded Virginia Tech Student Focuses on Return to Normalcy Year After Gunman's Deadly Rampage

Heidi Miller is grateful for many things: her classes at Virginia Tech, tennis games — and anything that makes her smile.

She craves normalcy, treasuring a return to the routine she had as a freshman last year, before bullets lodged in her knee, thigh and abdomen during a gunman's rampage in which 33 people were killed, including the shooter.

Miller, 20, remembers what happened that chilly April 16 last year, but can't recapture her thoughts when she came face to face with death in a Norris Hall classroom. She remembers snow flurries as she walked to class, but not how she felt when Seung-Hui Cho walked into the room with a gun in each hand.

Cho killed 25 students and five faculty members on the second floor of the building, arriving at Miller's intermediate French grammar class last. He left once and came back as she lay completely still on the floor in the back of the room.

"It's a small room, so no matter where he was, he was close," she said.

That room is where Cho, 23, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger, but Miller didn't know that until police burst in and announced "Shooter down."

A dozen of Miller's classmates died.

"I do have pretty vivid memories but I'm able to take myself back out of it really quick," she said.

Miller's actions this year have helped keep those thoughts from overtaking her. She's still studying French and has a double major in international studies and geography — and has made time for volunteer work.

She spent winter break working on the Hurricane Katrina recovery effort in New Orleans, and helped set up for a recent community service day on campus. She teaches every week at an elementary school in a French program started to honor her slain instructor, Jocelyne Couture-Nowak.

"I thought it was a really positive way to sort of cope with what had happened and do something meaningful," she said. "At the same time, whenever I do it I always smile and it's fun, so that's a good thing."

As the first anniversary of the worst mass shooting in modern U.S. history approaches, Miller will try to take it as "just another step on the way."

When days are hard, she said she recalls happier times.

"Even when it does get me down I can always go back to that and be like 'you know, last week I had a really good Tuesday,"' she said. "It's just a matter of time before another good day."

Last April 16, Miller spent four hours in surgery at Montgomery Regional Hospital to repair cartilage in her knee and a broken femur. One bullet remains lodged in her abdomen.

Of the 26 students that Virginia Tech lists as injured last April, six graduated and the other 20 are back at school, university spokesman Larry Hincker said.

Miller spent five days in the hospital and most of the summer in physical therapy.

"I'm back to doing everything I used to do. Like, I played tennis yesterday," she said recently. "That's my favorite sport."

Miller also was able to spend part of last summer as a counselor at a tennis camp near Winchester that she has attended for years. She will go back this summer, too, although only for two weeks.

"It meant a lot to me before this happened, and then last summer, especially," she said.

For most of the summer, Miller will be out of the country, taking a humanities class that Virginia Tech offers in Greece, then staying with a German family for an immersion program to learn that language.

Miller hadn't planned to go to Virginia Tech in the first place. She had thought of it as "a science-math big school" and didn't even visit the campus until April of her senior year in high school. The friendly atmosphere and strong school spirit won her over.

"I never regretted, ever thought twice about coming here," she said. "I just loved every minute of it, and I still do."

After the shootings, she didn't consider dropping out or transferring.

"Even in the hospital, I told my mom 'I still want to go back in the fall, you know,"' Miller said.

Being back on campus with others who endured the tragedy has been comforting, especially spending time with the handful of fellow survivors of the French class.

"We're still taking some of the same classes, so they've become some of my close friends," she said. "They are there for support in ways that some people might not be able to offer."

"You learn to appreciate certain things more than you normally used to," she said. "Just hanging out with my friends all of a sudden was much more meaningful."

One close friend, Abby Schuhart, stayed at the hospital for at least six hours with a group from a campus Presbyterian center until she got a glimpse of Miller after her surgery. The two are roommates this year.

The support of friends in the church group, Miller said, has given her a "deeper trust that somehow everything would be OK" and enabled her to avoid turning to anger and bitterness.

Friends and family were very protective at first, Miller said, but the treatment she got from her 16-year-old sister Wendy drew the two closer.

"I know it shook her up but she's one of the first people that really treated me the same as she used to. She was like 'You can get up now and get that yourself,"' she said. "I can't even explain how much that meant."