Wednesday, March 5, 2008

"Miller finds Rhythmic Solace" - By Pamela J. Podger

Roanoke Times, The (VA)-August 19, 2007

Girls hit tennis balls as cicadas whir in the heat, familiar
sounds for Heidi Miller as she gathers strength at a Shenandoah Valley
camp before Virginia Tech's start of classes Monday.

Camp Strawderman place is a touchstone for Miller, 19, a camp
counselor and tennis instructor at a rustic, all-girls camp where she
has summered since she was 8.

This time, she also traveled three times a week to Harrisonburg
for physical therapy for wounds inflicted in Seung-Hui Cho's April 16
rampage when he killed 32 people on Tech's campus.

Miller, who was in Room 211 in Norris Hall for a French class,
was shot three times in her left side. She has a titanium rod in her
femur, screws in her shattered knee and a bullet in her lower abdomen
that doctors will remove later, if necessary.

"Here, I can be Heidi Miller the camp counselor, not the victim
of the Virginia Tech tragedy," she said, sitting by the courts on a
recent muggy day. "I haven't tried to figure it out or make more out of
it. I'm moving on. What happened that day doesn't define me."

While some of those injured replay the events and search for
meaning, others such as Miller yearn for life to get back to normal.

At the 78-year-old camp, the greatest perils are relentless
gnats and wayward tennis balls.

The predictable rhythms at camp have been a sanctuary, a place
for Miller to heal and absorb all of the changes in her life since
April. For the first time, she and her younger sister, Wendy, 16, had only
two weeks at camp together instead of one month. Her family's ties to
the camp are strong -- her mother was a camper, her grandmother a
counselor and her parents got engaged on the property.

"I really wanted to make sure I could come, even if it was
going only for a week or two weeks or a weekend. It was something that was
normal, and it was what I was supposed to do," she said. "I keep
reminding myself that, for a while, this will be something that will be in my
life every day. But there will come a time that it will be a chapter."

Miller is excited to return to Tech, where she will be a
sophomore and intends to double major in geography and international studies.
Her body will be stronger, and she's eager to see friends and root
for the football team. She has been in touch with several injured
classmates and has visited Blacksburg four times over the summer.

She also has some qualms.

"I'm apprehensive just to see how everyone acts," she said.
"Thus far, everything that's come to me that has been a challenge, I've
been able to overcome. The really big one is going back to class and to
sit there and not think the worst possible scenarios every time. I'm
nervous about that."

The plucky young woman doesn't want to be regarded differently
and has worked hard -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- to be
seen as the same person she was before the shooting. She's tall and
easygoing, with hazel eyes, and blond hair tied in a knot at the nape of
her neck.

"That's her biggest question: Will they want to be my friend
because this happened?" said her father, Dennis Miller, 48, who's an
accountant. "I told her she would have to be careful of that type of
situation. And she already knew that, too."

The camp has been an intermediate step between returning to
Tech and her recuperation in her parents' Harrisonburg home. For the first
six weeks after she left Montgomery Regional Hospital, Miller was
totally dependent and couldn't put any weight on her left leg.

Her mother, Lolly, 46, who works with older people in
preventive care, said she's learning to respect her daughter as an adult.

"It isn't the way you expect to see your child after her first
year at college. Usually they are home for a meal and then off with
friends," she said. "Our family likes the imagery of a butterfly, and this
is the beginning of that -- breaking through a cocoon to a life that
has changed.

"In the months that have gone on, I've been very careful that I
don't answer for her. She wants to take charge of this. This is
probably one of the biggest tests in her whole life."

Heidi Miller seems to have adjusted well to her injuries and
has made steady progress since April.

"Emotionally, from the day it happened, she seemed to have a
pretty good attitude, and it made it easier for me," Dennis Miller said.
"If anyone asks questions, she'll answer them. My only concern in the
future is, I guess, certain sounds or smells will probably make her
flinch or take her back."

At the camp's Meddilark cabin, Miller watches five 14-year-olds
with co-counselor and friend Amy Bankert. After lights out, they'll
talk about their day. Sometimes Miller shares her frustration about a
tough exercise in physical therapy, where she pushes her muscles and tries
new challenges such as climbing a rock wall. At this point, her
doctors say her body is healing well and she needs to grasp that point

"They say the last piece of physical therapy is getting your
agility back. I can almost jump rope and hop. I just have to trust that
my leg is going to support me," she said.

"The thing I appreciate is people here don't treat me like I'm
fragile. I know if my knee almost gives or if I stumble, everyone isn't
going to gasp or [start] running over. I've always been independent."

On Miller's first hike since she was shot, all her cabin girls
cheered when she made it down the steep incline.

Margaret Gouldman, camp owner and director, didn't hesitate to
take Miller back as one of 25 counselors for just part of the summer.

"She's a wonderful girl who is upbeat and outgoing," Gouldman
said. "We love her. We decided this would be the best place in the world
for her because we're family."

Miller said the camp -- complete with pit toilets and cabins
decorated with pink and yellow flowering vines -- has been a good place
to recover from the intense physical therapy. She appreciates the
timelessness of the setting, a giant meadow surrounded by green forest and
plum-colored mountains in the dusk of the day. She rarely uses her
e-mail, and she's sheltered from the media that she knows will be
plentiful on the Tech campus as the fall semester begins. She knows people
here will listen, but she doesn't want to burden them.

"She keeps plugging -- sometimes she wants to talk about it and
sometimes not," said Dee Shaffer, who oversees the three tennis
teachers. "She's not going to let it rule her life. She's just picked herself
right up."

Bethany Teachman, an assistant professor of psychology at the
University of Virginia, said good social support, realistic expectations
of progress and visiting a trauma site are predictors of whether
people will recover well.

"There isn't one right way to react to a trauma like this.
Research shows that the body has amazing natural recovery mechanisms, and
we should let those work," she said. In general, "it sounds like she is
doing all of the things that would help her adapt well. It is a real
testament to her strength and resilience."

Miller is on the tennis courts again, mostly serving or tossing
balls. But she isn't yet playing the way she once did and sometimes
she can't get a shot she could have reached six months ago.

"I was glad to be in an environment where it was almost like my
life hadn't changed so drastically," Miller said. "Especially with the
older girls, I used to be able to play and give them a run for their
money and now I can't. I can play at a certain level, and I look forward
to coming back here next summer."

Staff writer Donna Alvis-Banks and research librarian Belinda
Harris contributed to this report.

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