It's 5 o'clock in the morning, and Sarah Salazar would rather be sleeping. Not just because it's early. Or because she's a teenager and can't seem to get enough sleep. Doctors say the shotgun pellets embedded in her shoulder, lung and back have sent her lead levels skyrocketing and leave her feeling tired much of the time.
Her injuries also make it hard for Sarah to do even simple tasks, like bathing. Her home, in the small town of Santa Fe, Texas, has one shower for six women — Sarah, her mother and four sisters — so she now wakes early, before everyone else, to take her time in the shower.
Later, in her room, Sarah picks a shirt for the day — though definitely not her favorite navy top with thin white stripes. Its wide, open neckline is now too wide, too open, too revealing. Sarah's younger sister Sonya helps her fasten her bra.
By 6:20 a.m., Sarah catches a ride to school with her best friend, Emma Lovejoy, and Emma's grandmother in their Jeep Wrangler. Unlike her sisters, Sarah, now a junior, doesn't ride the bus to Santa Fe High School anymore. Not since she missed the bus on May 18, 2018 — the day that changed her life forever.
According to police, that's the day a 17-year-old student carried a Remington 870 shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol into Sarah's art classroom. He killed eight students and two teachers and wounded 13 others, including Sarah.
This is her story — the story of one teenager's long, slow struggle, physically and emotionally, to rebuild her life after a school shooter nearly took it from her.
May 18, 2018
When the shooting begins, Sarah, then 16, is the last person to hide inside her art room's supply closet. Her classmates try to block the door, but the gunman can still see them through a small window in the door. He aims his shotgun at the glass and fires.
Small lead pellets explode into the closet. Sarah's neck, left shoulder and leg are hit. She drops to the floor and, trying to stay calm, reaches for a classmate.
Trenton Beazley is also hit, in the back. The sophomore catcher on the baseball team feels a tug and turns. In the dim light he can see a girl bleeding badly from her neck and shoulder, her long black hair in her face. Sarah gasps for help.
Trenton grabs Sarah's jacket from her lap and wraps it like a tourniquet around her shoulder to stop the bleeding. He doesn't remember thinking about it.
"It's not like you practice something like that. It's more like an instinct. You just look down, and you see something you think might work," Trenton says later.
Before she is shot, Sarah prays for God to protect everyone in the closet.
After she is shot, she calls to God again:
Here I am. If you're ready to take me home, I'm not scared. But if you want to let me stay, then that's fine too.
The students wait more than half an hour for the shooting to stop and for help to arrive.
Sarah's mom, Sonia Lopez, says her own prayers the moment she hears that there has been a shooting at her daughters' school. She tries to make her way to Santa Fe High but, at a designated meeting point, has to wait for Sarah to come back to her.
Bus after bus reunites students with their families. Sarah never comes.
"Lord, please be with Sarah. Let her be OK," Lopez prays over and over and over.
Then word comes: Sarah has been shot and taken to HCA Houston Healthcare Clear Lake. The blast caused serious bleeding in Sarah's neck. Doctors decided it was too risky to repair the two damaged veins, so they tied off the ends instead. Her shoulder joint has been shattered, and remnants of the shell are scattered through her body.
To Lopez, this all seems a blessing.
"I know that the Lord was there with [Sarah] because she called unto him, and he answered. She may not have seen him, but I know that he protected her because none of her vital organs were touched. Her brain was intact," Lopez says.
Still, it takes back-to-back emergency surgeries to stabilize Sarah. Dr. Brandon Low, the orthopedic surgeon on call, checks the scans and knows it is a devastating injury.
"The joint where the shoulder meets up with the socket was just destroyed — hardly visible even on X-ray, it was in so many pieces," Low says.
Low often treats gunshot patients and says Sarah's injury is a triple hit: shot at close range with a powerful weapon in a vulnerable part of her body.
The surgeon joins the rest of the trauma team in the operating room and begins removing nonviable body tissue to prevent infection. They also remove as many pellets as they can, as well as fragments from the shell itself, before sewing up the wound.
Nearly a month later, Sarah will have a complete shoulder replacement.
Sarah's hospital room fills with balloons, flowers and visitors. Pop star Justin Timberlake promises her tickets to his upcoming Houston show. NFL star J.J. Watt pays a visit. "Santa Fe Strong" starts appearing on T-shirts and billboards across South Texas.
Doctors have to wire Sarah's mouth shut so her fractured jaw can heal, limiting her diet to chicken broth and applesauce. Her best friend, Emma, visits almost every day. They play cards and watch Netflix. At first, Emma is surprised at how swollen Sarah's neck has become — "like a marshmallow," she says.
Seventeen days after the shooting, Sarah is discharged and moves back to her mom's three-bedroom house. Though her jaw is still wired shut, she begins supplementing her limited diet by sucking on Flamin' Hot Cheetos, her favorite snack. A small taste of her old life.
In July, she begins aquatic physical therapy to exercise her new prosthetic shoulder joint and regain some strength. In the water, Sarah feels more comfortable. Her arm is lighter and so is the pain.
In August, on the first day of school, Sarah doesn't hesitate to return to class at Santa Fe High. She wants to focus on her junior year and prepare for college. Her dream school is Texas A&M University in College Station. Her dream career: nurse anesthetist.
Sarah's mother, Sonia Lopez, worries more about her daughter's reentry. For one thing, how will she navigate the bustling hallways of a school with 1,400 students?
"We were scared that people were going to bump into her in the hallways, you know? And she was like, 'No, I can do it, I can do it. I don't need anybody carrying my books,' " Lopez says.
Sarah admits later, though, that the return is difficult at times. Whenever someone knocks at the classroom door, she has to check who it is before she can continue her work. The new alarms on the doors are loud and make her feel anxious.
In September, Sarah's mother and other families that have been irreparably scarred by the massacre appear before the Santa Fe school board. They publicly recognize their loved ones who were killed and ring a bell for each. They then recognize the 13 injured, including Sarah, though the board president tries to stop the group.
Lopez worries that the board is doing too little to help the community recover and protect against future threats. At the lectern, she pleads with the district.
"We need to set an example out of this, so what happened to my daughter will not happen again," she says, near tears.
In the packed audience, Sarah sits silently, her left arm in a sling.
On a breezy Saturday night in October, a DJ pumps Mexican ranchera and cumbia music in between Bruno Mars and Miley Cyrus as dozens of people mingle inside the community center at Santa Fe's Runge Park.
This isn't Sarah's party. It's her younger sister Sonya's quinceañera, her 15th birthday party — a rite of passage in many Hispanic families. It is also the first time their extended circle of family and friends has had something to celebrate since the shooting.
Sarah arrives late, having picked up the last of the balloons. She wears a short, sleeveless pink dress and a black crepe jacket to cover the scar on her shoulder. Her father, Nick Salazar, proudly walks her from table to table to greet family members and friends.
"She looks like she's having fun," he says later. "Which is good to see her smile and everything. I'm happy that she's happy."
"Some of these people I met through the shooting," Lopez says as she serves rice, beans and cabrito with lamb to a long line of guests.
Another survivor, Flo Rice, stops by with her husband. The former substitute teacher walks with a cane and smiles for a selfie with Sarah.
After the official dance and presentations, Sarah slips outside and takes off her black ankle-strap heels. She's tired and thinking about going home early.
"This was a good distraction. It's nice," she says. "It was good to keep my mind off other things."
The fact is, many things are still hard for Sarah. She can't raise her left hand past her waist. At her dad's house, she can't reach the microwave to heat up ramen noodles. Also, her mom doesn't think her shoulder has healed enough for her to drive safely, so even after Sarah turns 17 that November, she still depends on others to get around.
Some days she wishes she could simply put her long black hair in a ponytail without help.
As winter approaches, Sarah's inner circle — her mother, four sisters and Emma — help her piece together a new routine. When the insurance company deals her a hard blow, refusing to pay for any more aquatic therapy sessions, her older sister, Suzannah, encourages Sarah to do some exercises at home. Her mom keeps track of medical appointments. Each morning, sister Sonya, who shares a room with Sarah, helps her get dressed, while her two youngest sisters, Star and Sophya, pitch in with Sarah's household chores and help feed the family's pets.
In between all this work, there's still plenty of time for fun too. The family hosts a regular Friday game night. And every night, Sarah can find comfort and distraction with the family's many animals: four dogs, two cats, four parakeets, 11 fish, plus a turtle and a goat named Michelle. The goat was supposed to be dinner at the quinceañera but now hangs out in the backyard with a menagerie of chickens and ducks.
Sarah loves to snuggle in bed with her gray kitten or practice her Spanish by bingeing on her favorite telenovela, Sin senos sí hay paraíso.
"Netflix is the cure," she says with a smile.
"I feel like she's slowly getting to a new normal, a new happy and stuff. But I wouldn't say that she's completely there yet," Emma says. "It kind of depends on the day. But ultimately, I feel like she's still processing, and she's going to for a while."
Once every other week, Sarah skips advisory period at school to join a small therapy group with a few others affected by the shooting, though they don't talk much. Only twice have they actually discussed that day.
Instead, they make arts and crafts. A Christmas wreath that now hangs on the door to the family's laundry room. A rock covered in magazine clippings that sits on Sarah's windowsill. Sarah prefers creating things over talking. Art makes her feel calm.
"I don't know how talking about it is gonna help how I feel about it," she says.
But she knows, emotionally, she has a long way to go.
"The wellness counselor at the school — I have a lady that I talk to — she says that I keep my emotions in and that's not good," Sarah says. "I do do that, and so, emotionally, I've not come that far because I try to keep it to myself."
Even before the trauma, Sarah was pretty quiet. But since May, it has been hard even for her best friend to know what's going on sometimes. And they've known each other since first grade.
"She does what I do whenever I'm bothered by something — just kind of puts on this front that makes everybody think that everything's going all great," Emma says. "But you know there's still things that are bothering her."
At school, offhand remarks can trigger difficult emotions. Sarah can't stand to hear students mention their weekend hunting plans — a frequent topic in this small Texas town. Even the moment of silence her school holds every morning can be difficult.
"Sometimes they're like, 'OK, pause for a moment of silence,' and I start praying. And then they're like, 'All right!' And I'm like, 'I can't even pause,' " Sarah says. For her, prayer has been a constant comfort "in the morning and at nighttime and whenever I need someone."
Sometimes Sarah wonders what will happen to the former student accused of shooting her and killing so many of her classmates and teachers. One day in February, she and her mom file inside Galveston County's state courthouse. They sit near the front so they can get a good look at him. When the accused shuffles inside, handcuffed, his lawyers ask the judge for a change of venue. They argue that the mass shooting has gained so much attention in the community that he won't receive a fair trial.
Sarah watches him closely. That day in May, in the art room, she never made eye contact with the shooter. This day, she wants to look him in the eyes.
But he keeps his head down.
As the shooting's May anniversary draws closer, the emotions that Sarah keeps tucked inside grow more intense, especially the sadness.
"Some days I'll just wake up and be like, 'Today is not going to be a good day,' " she says. "It's like, 'No, I just want to go back to bed.' Or just, like, throughout the day, I guess I'll be having an OK day, and then I'll just get sad."
Sarah doesn't know how she'll feel on the actual anniversary. Or what she'll do.
"It's just been a year, but it doesn't feel like it, because the year's gone by so fast — I don't have time to process things," she says.
Sarah's physical recovery has also been slow. She has had six surgeries since the shooting and, nearly 11 months later, must now have a seventh. Pellets from the blast remain embedded in her chest, shoulder and back, and they've pushed her lead levels four times past the acceptable limit.
"It gives her headaches, stomachaches, dizziness," her mother, Sonia Lopez, says. "I just can't wait till they're gone — all these pellets."
It's another 5 o'clock morning, mid-April, and Sarah is already awake. Not to claim the shower though. She, her mom and younger sister Sonya pull up in their rusty Toyota Corolla to the outpatient surgery center at UTMB Health in League City.
Inside, Sarah waits calmly in the pre-op area.
"I saw Grey's Anatomy," she says. "There's this one episode where a girl is scared to have surgery. I don't know, I'm not scared." Because it's all so routine by now.
Sarah has one unusual request for the surgeon. She wants to keep the pellets he finds.
"They were inside of me, so they're mine," she says.
"I'll have to talk to some people. I don't know in terms of the evidence, chain of command, forensic," says Dr. Ikenna Okereke.
The fog of anesthesia settles over Sarah. Lopez leans down and kisses her forehead.
"God bless you," she whispers.
As Sarah is wheeled into surgery, her mother calls out to the staff, "Bless y'all if you're working on Sarah today. Know that there are a lot of people praying for y'all today!"
The doors to the operating room close.
Once again, Lopez waits for her daughter, Sarah Grace, to come back to her.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Tomorrow marks one year since a gunman shot and killed 10 students and teachers at Santa Fe High School, southeast of Houston, Texas. Thirteen more were injured. For the past year, reporter Laura Isensee with Houston Public Media has been following one student whose life will forever be divided in half - everything before that gunman walked into her classroom and everything after. A warning - this story includes details that may disturb some listeners.
LAURA ISENSEE, BYLINE: A few days after Thanksgiving, Sarah Salazar gets together with friends and family at her mom's house.
SARAH SALAZAR: Royce, you didn't even give me a hug. It's my birthday.
ISENSEE: Sarah's turning 17.
SALAZAR: Give me a hug.
ISENSEE: There are presents on a table and a cake. Sarah's mom, Sonia Lopez, offers up a prayer.
SONIA LOPEZ: Dear Heavenly Father, we just want to thank you for today for Sarah's birthday and for Sarah's life, that she's still with us.
ISENSEE: Sarah lives with her mom and four sisters. They and her best friend Emma plus more than a dozen others gather round.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) Happy birthday to you. Happy...
ISENSEE: It's clear this birthday is special because, for Sarah, it almost didn't happen.
UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) ...Dear Sarah. Happy birthday to you.
ISENSEE: On the morning of May 18, 2018, Sarah was starting her favorite class, art, at Santa Fe High when, according to police, a young man walked in with a shotgun and a .38-caliber pistol. Students ran to the supply closet. Sarah was the last one in. They closed the door, but the gunman held his shotgun up to the small window in the door.
TRENTON BEAZLEY: So we're in there. And then shot was fired, and then she was hit in, like, the face, shoulder area.
ISENSEE: Trenton Beazley felt someone tug at his back. Sarah was bleeding and gasping for help. Trenton grabbed her jacket.
BEAZLEY: I put it around her shoulder and then tied a knot so the bleeding would stop.
ISENSEE: Sarah remembers feeling strangely calm. She prayed to God until she passed out.
SALAZAR: And I was not really scared 'cause if it was my time to go to heaven, then it was my time.
ISENSEE: But it wasn't her time. Later that day, Sarah would have two emergency surgeries, one to stem the bleeding in her neck, the other for her left shoulder.
BRANDON LOW: You know, the joint where the shoulder meets up with the socket was just destroyed, hardly even visible on X-ray, it was in so many pieces.
ISENSEE: Dr. Brandon Low was the surgeon on call. He says the gunman appeared to have used a cartridge full of small lead pellets. Low removed many but not all of them, and he couldn't help but think.
LOW: Oh, gosh. You know, this is a 16-year-old girl, and this is a terrible injury that is going to bother her to some degree forever.
ISENSEE: In the weeks that followed, Sarah began a grueling recovery. Her jaw was fractured, so her mouth had to be wired shut. She lost 20 pounds. She also had a complete shoulder replacement. Recovery early on included aquatic physical therapy, but then insurance stopped covering it.
SALAZAR: There's times when, like, I'm like, dang. I could really use my arm right now. So (laughter) it makes me frustrated when I can't.
ISENSEE: Taking a shower, getting dressed, putting her long black hair in a ponytail - it's all hard. But perhaps the hardest part of Sarah's recovery is talking about it. She's always been quiet. But since the shooting, Sarah keeps to herself more. She sleeps a lot. She's seen a counselor at school a few times.
SALAZAR: She says that I keep my emotions in.
ISENSEE: And the counselor tells her that's not good.
SALAZAR: I mean, I do do that. And so emotionally, I've not come that far because I try keeping it to myself.
ISENSEE: Sometimes even her best friend doesn't know what's going on. Emma Lovejoy met Sarah in first grade.
EMMA LOVEJOY: She does what I do whenever I'm bothered by something, just kind of puts on this front that makes everybody think that everything's, like, going all great and everything. But, you know, there's still things that are bothering her.
ISENSEE: Almost every day, Emma and her grandmother pick Sarah up for school. Sarah doesn't want to ride the bus anymore because it triggers bad memories from the day of the shooting. Sarah's four sisters also help. They'll grab heavy groceries, fix her hair and just have fun.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: That's the way to go.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I never go out hopeless (laughter).
ISENSEE: The family hosts a game night most Fridays. Tonight Sarah is dealing the cards for Uno.
SALAZAR: OK. No cheating, Sophie.
ISENSEE: Sarah doesn't go out as much as she used to. So game night brings the fun to her.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Woo, that was better.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: Do you skip Star (ph)?
ISENSEE: On this game night, nearly a year has passed since the shooting. The hospital bed where Sarah used to sleep is gone. So are the stuffed animals she got from well-wishers. Still, as the anniversary nears, Sarah says those emotions she keeps inside, they're getting intense.
SALAZAR: Some days, I'll just wake up and be like, oh, today's not going to be a good day. Just like, oh, no. I just want to go back to bed. Or just, like, throughout the day, I guess I'll be having an OK day, and then I'll just get sad. I don't know.
ISENSEE: At school, Sarah says anytime the class door opens, she has to check who's there.
SALAZAR: Like, it's just been a year. But it doesn't feel like it because this year's gone by so fast. I don't, like, have time to process things.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: We're going to do our little safety check, OK, guys? Can you tell us your full name?
SALAZAR: Sarah Salazar.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And your birthday?
SALAZAR: November 27, 2001.
ISENSEE: A few weeks ago, Sarah was back in a green hospital gown, nurses around her bed. This is her seventh surgery since the shooting.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: And Sarah, what are we doing for you today?
SALAZAR: Removing the pellets.
ISENSEE: Some of the shotgun pellets are still in her body and have pushed her lead levels four times past the acceptable limit. The lead makes her tired and nauseous and worries her mom.
LOPEZ: I just can't wait till they're gone, you know, all those pellets. Hopefully, they won't have to go back in after these are removed.
ISENSEE: As Sarah gets her anesthesia, her mom hugs her one more time.
LOPEZ: God bless you.
ISENSEE: Nurses wheel Sarah away to the OR, and her mom calls out that a lot of people are praying for everyone helping Sarah. The doors close, and Sonia waits for her daughter, Sarah Grace, to come back to her. For NPR News, I'm Laura Isensee in Houston.
(SOUNDBITE OF MARY LATTIMORE'S "ON THE DAY YOU SAW THE DEAD WHALE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.