ANNE MARIE HOCHHALTER
Columbine student paralyzed during the rampage
Apr. 16 2000
She has given names to the pain.
Anne Marie Hochhalter slides her elbows back onto the armrests of her wheelchair, angles her forearms inward, bows her head and clenches her fists - "My pain position." A thousand tiny agonies prick her left thigh for half a minute or more, sometimes two or three times an hour, often during the last few periods at school. Those are the needles.
The knives come at night, or late afternoon, sometimes six or seven times an hour - excruciating, penetrating stabs.
"The worst three or four seconds you can ever have," she says softly.
People see 18-year-old Anne Marie in a wheelchair and think of paralysis, numbness, sensation cut off on April 20 by the gunshot wounds that could have killed her. She wishes they could know - just for a second - what she feels when the needles and knives come.
At home, her father helps her manage with humor, with shoulder massages, with breathing exercises that work Anne Marie through the misery. At school, she simply holds on - head bowed, elbows back, fists clenched.
The pain position.
"I try to make it look as normal as possible when I'm in pain, so I don't make a scene," she says.
The good news is that the pain might mean that the nerves in her leg are slowly regenerating. The bad news:
Pain is pain.
She thought about death only once, as she lay wounded on the sidewalk outside Columbine High School. But paralysis confronts her constantly.
Simple tasks that used to take her two minutes suddenly took 10. Her arms couldn't even lift the dead weight of her own legs, and as she began rehabilitation at Craig Hospital, "things looked bleak for me."
Slowly, she cultivated strength in her arms, worked that into confidence and transferred it all into emotional toughness that, by last fall, had pumped her with a sense of hope.
"I had to grow up so fast," Anne Marie says. "Your emotions have no choice but to get stronger. First, I was confused, angry, sad - paralyzed in my mind. Finally, I thought, "I can deal with this until I walk again.'- " But when her mother, Carla Hochhalter, committed suicide in October, the blow blunted Anne Marie's emotional progress.
"When you're that close to somebody and they die, you become an emotional rock with no feeling," Anne Marie says. "It's so hard on every level to deal with it. To me, personally, this was a much bigger thing than Columbine." She pressed on - encouraged by family and friends, comforted by the faithful canine companionship of a 12-year-old Bichon Frise named Cotton, whose snoring soothes Anne Marie like a lullaby.
She aced her classes in the first semester and likely will do the same before graduating this spring. She has found muscles in her arms she never knew she had. She has grown up and emerged from her shell, powered in part by her unabashed need to communicate.
"It was a necessity," Anne Marie says.
"With the media, you can't hide in the shadows. And you have to be assertive when you deal with people. If I need to get up a curb in my wheelchair, I need to get up a curb. I need to be able to tell someone in five seconds how to help me do it.
"I say what I have to say when I need to say it." Not that there aren't moments of insecurity. A thunderclap or a firecracker can bring it all back, the explosions and gunfire of April 20. She lives with an edgy awareness of her surroundings.
And pain looms, never far.
The story of Anne Marie's recovery - from Columbine, from the loss of her mother - continually adds new and encouraging chapters. Strength and confidence build on one another.
But Anne Marie wants people to understand that it's not only about learning how to live from a chair, about paralysis, about numbness.
"It's a survivor's story," she says.