In Highland Park, a Shooting Survivor and Her Community Are Still Healing

Washington Post photo by Demetrius Freeman
Days after the shooting in Highland Park, visitors at a memorial site write “Stronger Together” in front of portraits of the people who were killed.

HIGHLAND PARK, Ill. – Sheila Gutman can measure the past year in numbers: 52 days in the hospital, six in intensive care. Eight surgeries, some lasting as long as 13 hours. Twenty-two visits to a hyperbaric chamber. More than two weeks in traction. Double skin grafts. One section of cadaver bone.

Also, 364 days without walking.

Gutman, a mother of four and grandmother of five, was among the dozens of people grievously injured when a gunman with an assault rifle opened fire last year on their town’s Fourth of July parade – a cherished tradition in an affluent suburban community that, until the moment when bullets pierced the innocence, never expected its name to be added to America’s roster of mass killings.

During her long, arduous recovery, when doctors were not sure they could save the foot that had been shattered and shredded by a single shot, Gutman began to comprehend how deep Highland Park’s collective trauma ran. The town’s mayor testified before a Senate committee that nearly 1,200 people a day sought counseling at the local high school in the wake of the tragedy and that victim support specialists had warned “counseling will be needed by some forevermore.”

“Everyone who ran that day left different than they came,” Gutman reflected recently in her first interview since the attack. “They now have a burden they did not have previously … a fear that is visceral.”

The same could be said, she now realizes, of the many communities across the country that also are on that roster. So far this year, more than 330 other cities and towns have experienced a shooting in which four or more people were injured. Gutman wonders about the survivors and the resources available to help them heal, especially in places with far fewer resources than hers.

“We have to do better next time,” she said.

Photo for The Washington Post by Jamie Kelter Davis
Sheila Gutman continues with daily therapy on her foot, as well as frequent medical appointments.

Many in Highland Park who lined up on Central Avenue a year ago for the marching bands and floats are holding their breath as this Independence Day approaches – recalling the pop-pop-pop and screaming, the onslaught of sirens, the sheltering for hours during law enforcement’s hunt for the shooter. Seven people died. Police tape encircled parts of downtown for weeks.

There will be little of the usual celebration Tuesday. Instead of a parade, the lakeshore suburb, which sits about 27 miles north of Chicago, will have a remembrance ceremony and community walk.

“The walk is a reminder of our beloved community tradition and symbolizes the reclaiming of our town,” the city’s website explains.

Some businesses are closing entirely. Sunset Foods, a neighborhood market since 1937 that is located just blocks from where the shooting occurred, has usually been open for at least part of the day. It will stay dark, marketing director Sarah Hanlon said, “to aid the city of Highland Park in its efforts to have a safe and successful day of remembrance.”

The 63-year-old Gutman, a former assistant state’s attorney, doesn’t look back much on July 4, 2022 – a day that promised to be “full of family and fun.” Their three generations – including a 4-month-old grandchild – were sitting curbside on a blanket in front of the Walker Bros. pancake house. The spot was adjacent to the viewing stage, a great location, they thought, for seeing the marchers and children’s bike parade go by. In fact, it left them fully exposed; the gunman was perched on a rooftop directly across the street.

When the shooting started, everyone ran and scattered. Gutman and her husband hid in the maintenance closet of a medical building until they could flee for the hospital. She was later told that as the emergency room team took off her left shoe, “basically the entire back of my foot came off. Whatever was holding my foot, the bone, was gone.”

In the months that followed, she came close to an amputation. Today, she gets around in a wheelchair or with a scooter, her leg bent at the knee with calf and foot resting on a cushioned platform. She has no idea when she will walk or drive again.

Every morning starts with excruciating pain. Every week includes several sessions of therapy so that tissue in her foot can be manipulated to prevent further atrophy. On the stairs in her house, she maneuvers by sitting and then scooting up and down – which makes her grandchildren giggle.

“The bottom line is, to suffer from something like this is a very isolating, lonely, terrifying, uncertain experience,” Gutman said. “But I am going to be okay.”

The ordeal is fueling her motivation to help others. She is worried about the strain of the carnage on medical providers and the collateral damage suffered within families, having witnessed the anxiety and survivor’s guilt in her own. She knows people in Highland Park who still look over their shoulders in grocery stores, places of worship and outdoor cafes. They think twice about the shoes they’re wearing in case they suddenly need to run.

“Everything seems different, clearer to me now. It’s like my life is in HD,” Gutman explained, sitting on her back patio on a warm summer afternoon. Her voice was calm. She repeatedly mentioned how lucky she feels.

“I’ve learned I could be a better neighbor, citizen, activist [for] having been part of this,” she said.

A new organization with national aspirations aims to connect communities in the aftermath of such shootings and to provide mental health assistance early on to victims, survivors and loved ones. The group, named Aftermath, eventually hopes to facilitate medical help, too. As co-founder Kathryn Pechette puts it, “We realize that a mass shooting doesn’t end when the last bullet is shot.”

The effort is one that New York psychotherapist Suzanne Phillips, who specializes in trauma, strongly supports. “It might be simplistic,” she said, “but the reality is that people heal in communities.”

Gutman met last month with Aftermath’s leaders at Country Kitchen, a Highland Park restaurant where many sheltered a year ago. She wants to aid survivors of gun violence as they deal with the long-term aftershocks, although exactly how to best do that is something she’s still figuring out.

“I am now part of a group that has a shared experience, and with that comes responsibility,” she said Friday after yet another therapy session. “Commiserating is one thing – trying to figure out how to help people … is what is important.”

As for the young man accused of the rampage? Gutman says she doesn’t spend time thinking about 22-year-old Robert E. Crimo III, who is charged with 117 counts of murder, attempted murder and aggravated battery with a firearm. A date for his trial has not been set, and he continues to be held without bail. If convicted, he faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Neither Gutman nor her family will attend Highland Park’s remembrance ceremony Tuesday. They’ll be together, she said, intent on spending the day amid love and laughter.

“Being together is all we need.”