Teacher lives with consequences of a gun incident

Staff WriterApril 20, 2007 

The images from Virginia Tech's campus brought a flood of memories this week to an East Chapel Hill High School civics teacher who was held hostage by an armed student a year ago.

"The visual -- the cops, the SWAT teams with their guns -- just reminded me of my incident," said Lisa Kukla. "It brings back some of the fear."

Kukla, 37, has spent a year coping with the trauma of that day. Her struggle highlights the lasting injuries the Virginia Tech rampage may cause, even if there are no physical wounds, said psychiatrist Denisse Ambler, an assistant professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Medicine.

"Every individual is going to bring their life history to bear with their reaction," Ambler said. "People may want to talk about ... the details, others will cry, some will want to be around a lot of people, some will want to be alone."

Most people will not experience long-term, severely debilitating psychological effects from a trauma, Ambler said.

Kukla's struggle began April 24, 2006. School had already let out at East Chapel Hill High when a teenage boy walked into a classroom and pointed a shotgun at Kukla and student Chelsea Slegal. For about an hour, Kukla and Slegal talked to the teenager, trying to convince him not to shoot them. The teenager, who authorities say was William "Barrett" Foster, fired twice out a window, then went home.

Slegal could not be reached.

For the first week after the incident, Kukla said she was in shock. She just wanted to talk about it, but many people assumed the opposite and avoided the subject with her.

"It kind of felt like my funeral," Kukla said. "People who don't know what to say, they don't say anything."

To those who asked, though, "I just retold the story over and over again," Kukla said. "I would say, 'Oh, I don't want to talk about it,' and then I would go totally into the whole story."

Surviving the event was one thing. Coping with it afterward has been something Kukla now constantly lives with.

"I liked my life the way it was. I was really happy," she said. Now she has bouts of fear, anxiety and sleeplessness.

At the time of the attack, Kukla's son Carter was an infant. For months she had difficulty caring for him and fears that the bond with Carter might not be as strong as it should be.

"That's a critical time in a baby's life, and my husband had to take care of him a lot," she said.

Kukla avoids TV shows featuring guns or violence. She locks doors, and gets fearful around windows. Kukla moved her desk to face the door so she can see who enters.

"It affects everything. It makes you more emotional, it makes you more sensitive," she said.

Ambler said people who have recently experienced trauma should be allowed to guide a conversation.

"Let them talk if they want to talk," she said, "But there's lots of ways to offer support without pressing for details."

If a person seems debilitated by depression, fear, sleeplessness or other symptoms, and the symptoms last more than a month, he or she may have post traumatic stress disorder and may require professional help.

Kukla has taken a leave of absence from teaching the past few months, instead spending time with Carter and preparing for court next week, when Foster is scheduled for an appearance.

The event has changed her relationships with many people.

"You're a reminder that something bad happened," Kukla said.

Staff writer Jessica Rocha can be reached at 932-2008, or jessica.rocha@newsobserver.com.

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