Maureen Campesino - Rose Petal Corridors: The Aftermath of Murder in a College of Nursing

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By Maureen Campesino, PhD, RN, PsyNP
Doctoral Candidate
College of Nursing - University of Arizona
maureenc@dakotacom.net 

October 28, 2002; 9:30am, Tucson, Arizona. I receive a call from my friend in Phoenix who asks me what is going on down here. "Nothing, why?" I reply. "Turn on your TV", she says. I turn it on and see a live newscast from outside my College of Nursing building. In shock and horror, we listen in silence as we learn about the events unfolding. Nursing professors shot and killed…. streets closed off…. SWAT team has evacuated the building…. an interview with the spouse of one of the nursing students who says, "Cheryl and Barb were shot during an exam." I whisper coarsely to my friend through the phone line, "Cheryl and Barb?! No, no, NO!". Not my friends, Cheryl and Barb, it can't be. I quickly hang up, not knowing what to do next. I pace for a few moments. Maybe get on the Internet. Were they scheduled to teach their class now? No, I don't have time for that. I have to know right now: is it them? The newscaster says the street has been closed off, traffic is snarled, and it's chaos, so please do not drive to the College of Nursing building or anywhere near it. I get in my car and race over there. There' s no way I'm going to sit and wait for details to come in piece by piece on the news. Taking the back streets, I am able to get surprisingly close to our building. My heart pounding, I run over to the crowd. The streets are completely filled with people, police cars, and TV camera crews. I rush over to some nursing faculty standing on the street corner. Yes, it's true; my two friends have been shot and killed. We learn that another yet unidentified victim has been found; everyone agonizes over who it may be. The university already has crisis counseling set up in a nearby building, but I don't go inside. I run back over to the crowd and find a police officer. I tell him I know where Barb's husband works and ask if he has been located yet. He takes down the information and leaves to inquire. In a few moments, he returns to tell me they have the necessary information and are working on contacting him. I ask if they are going to notify him in person and if counselors will be on hand. He shifts into police-speak as he tells me they are experts in this area and they have it under control. (I later found out that apparently so many officers were tied up with the crime scene that Barb's husband had to come over to the College of Nursing to be officially notified, in the parking lot of the nursing building, that his wife had been killed this morning by a disgruntled nursing student.)

I return quickly to my car. I call my friend who is also Chairperson of my doctoral committee and tell her I'm on my way over to her house. She is a good friend of Cheryl's. I have to focus hard not to get in an accident as I struggle to see through my tears. And I am angry; so very, very angry. This just cannot be happening.

That was the beginning of what feels to be a surreal journey. As a doctoral candidate in the College of Nursing at the University of Arizona, I'm in the middle of writing a dissertation on bereavement following homicide. I am living my dissertation in a way I never dreamed possible. But of course, no one ever thinks they will be in the position of grieving the murder of a friend or loved one. I am learning first-hand what the people in my study have told me: the shock of such a horrible event completely shatters your world and those around you --- forever.

It's now been 11 days since the murders of three nursing professors and the suicide of the nursing student who killed them. My mind is still in a fog. Whenever I see my friends' photos on TV or in the newspaper, the shock of reality comes back to hit me: these are my friends and they're no longer here --- how can this be? There is so much to be said, so many stories to be told from the spouses, children and friends of the victims; from the nursing students who witnessed the murder of two professors and thought they'd be next; from the nursing faculty, staff and colleagues that worked with these talented teachers. Storytelling is an immensely important part of the healing process following the murder of a loved one. Not just talking it over, but telling your story to a truly empathic listener, over time, as the story develops and changes as you struggle to make sense of your suddenly shattered world.

This article is a brief account of my story, at this time in my bereavement process. Yet, as much as I want to tell it, I struggle to find the words. There is no way I can adequately describe the essences of the three women that were killed. Besides, that has already been done so eloquently during the funeral and memorial services for the victims, through the tearful and funny stories shared by their family, friends and colleagues. My description of these three women is, at best, a tiny dewdrop that reflects the profound value they held for their families and for the nursing discipline.

Dr. Cheryl McGaffic taught critical care nursing and a class on death and dying at the University for over ten years. The latter class was so popular it often had a waiting list from students both within and outside the College of Nursing. One of her passions was to teach others to ameliorate the emotional, physical and spiritual suffering of people who were dying and to make the health care environment a more humane place for people who were completing their transition from the visible to the invisible world. Her efforts extended to the larger community through her volunteer work with the Tucson AIDS Project. Cheryl's deep compassion for both her patients and students is best expressed by one of her journal entries that she shared with her class, reprinted at the end of this article. As a volunteer pastor at the University Medical Center, Cheryl had finally made the long and arduous decision to pursue her dream: in 8 weeks, she was to begin studies at the Yale Theological School to become a full-time clergy. Among Cheryl's most cherished passions was the 20-year relationship she had with her husband Walter, and their family menagerie of four dogs and four cats.

Cheryl was also a member of my dissertation committee. The night after her murder, I sorted through a stack of papers to retrieve the 3-page handwritten notes she had made on my dissertation proposal. I ran my fingers over her words, gleaning some closeness with her. I reread her remarks about homicide bereavement and how important it is for family members to say goodbye to their loved ones, to see their body and touch them one last time. None of the families of the three victims had this opportunity.

Barb Monroe was a friend of mine from the early 1990's. We taught together at another college for a few years; then our paths diverged. When I came to the University of Arizona to pursue doctoral studies, our paths crossed again, as she had a position as Nurse Educator at the University Medical Center. We'd meet for lunch in the hospital cafeteria, talking about old times and new. I remember how excited she was when applying for a position last year as critical care clinical instructor at the College of Nursing. It'd been her dream to teach in a baccalaureate nursing program. We were both so excited when she got the position; we were now part of the same College again. Barb was loved by her students. They described her as the epitome of patience, a teacher who combined absolute academic integrity with a hilarious sense of humor. Whether she was explaining a difficult concept in physiology, helping students in critical care clinicals, hiking with her husband and friends, or watching Friday night football games with her Minnesota Viking cohorts, her enthusiasm for people and joy of life shone through. Barb and her husband Don had a very close, loving relationship that spanned more than 20 years. As a tribute to Barb, her family and friends have set up a website (www.barbmonroe.org) where people can get a glimpse of the beautiful spirit that was Barb.

Robin Rogers, the third nursing professor shot, was the first victim killed but the last to be found. I did not know Robin personally, but later discovered that she and her husband have been my neighbors, living just a few doors away from me in an adjacent housing development. Robin and her husband Phillip had also been married more than 20 years. Their 21 year-old twins, Jonathan and Rachel, are college students. Robin joined the College of Nursing in 1996 after retiring from the Air Force as a Lt. Colonel and pediatric nurse practitioner. Students describe her as someone who "poured her whole energy into teaching". In her pediatric nursing lectures and hospital clinicals, she helped students feel comfortable and respected, the kind of instructor who welcomed students approaching her for help with questions or problems.

My heart aches for the spouses and family members of these three slain women, as I know intimately the enormous tasks that lie ahead for them in learning to live without their loved ones. They will have to slowly piece their world back together bit by bit and construct a new reality for themselves. Every holiday, every birthday will be a milestone; every news story of another murder may bring renewed waves of shock that come crashing down on them. And some will suffer through terrifying re-enactment images of the deaths. Tears or panic may come at moments least expected. They must deal with not only their own suffering, but the obvious discomfort in others who witness their pain and don't know what to say. From the very beginning of my work with family survivors of homicide, I realized what a great privilege it is for most of us to walk freely through our world without carrying this burden of pain.

Some families will be fortunate enough to have friends who can truly listen, who can bear witness to the tears, the stories, the confusion, the rage. Those who have strong beliefs in spiritual reunion with their loved ones will find some measure of comfort, as will those who believe that the essence of Barb, Cheryl and Robin live on, in the invisible realm. Some will have their own private communications with their loved ones, through dreams or hearing their voice, or through a seemingly inexplicable event of synchronicity that confirms to them that their loved one is nearby.

It would be a mistake to assume that there are only three family survivors in this tragedy. The family and children of the student who committed murder and suicide also suffer. It may anger some people that I make this point because they see the murderer as a monster. But as one student in the College of Nursing stated, "He's not a monster; he's a human being who committed a monstrous act." This of course does not condone in any way the horrific actions of this man, nor excuse or relieve him of responsibility. I have no doubt, however, that had this man survived his self-inflicted gunshots, the nurses responsible for him would provide the same level of care that they'd deliver to any other patient, as Barb, Cheryl and Robin taught them to do.

The anger I feel extends far beyond this man. It is a much broader and pervasive anger with the society we have created for ourselves. I am frustrated with the lack of critical reflection as we scratch our heads and say, "What is this world coming to?" I hear constantly how "senseless" these murders are. Yet, for me, these and other equally horrific murders make perfect sense considering that we have become accustomed to living in one of the most violent nations in the industrialized world.

I am angry with people who speak of the horror of these murders, yet regularly entertain themselves with the plethora of violent television programs such as Homicide in the Streets, CSI: Crime Scene Investigation, Robbery Homicide Division, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, ad nauseum. I am angry at short-sighted gun control legislation that purports some sort of fantasized control over who is qualified to carry weapons. I am angry with the insensitivity of National Rifle Association (NRA) proponents, including Charlton Heston, who held a political rally for pro-gun candidates just 48 hours after the murder of our three professors --- just as they did after the Columbine school shootings. I am angry with the passivity of an American public who claim to be tired of living in fear yet fail to take responsibility to say a resounding "No" to the sale of weapons in such easy venues as gun shows, street shops, banks and the local K-Mart. I am frustrated with the people who said, "Ah, now we can relax", after the Maryland/DC snipers were apprehended --- as though such a spree of violence could not and would not be repeated in this society we have created. I am frustrated with people who actually believe that the solution to societal violence is to arm every citizen with a weapon. And I am frustrated with nurses who claim that politics has nothing to do with nursing when we are the ones who take care of thousands of gunshot victims daily and who now bury our own colleagues. These are the realities that are senseless. While I realize that the cause for the tragedy that occurred in our College of Nursing is multifactoral, the truth is that the pervasive acceptance of violence nationally and globally is one of the most common causes for burying our loved ones. Nurses' voices are a million strong and we have right now the capability, the responsibility and the choice to create and shape the kind of world we would like to live in.

Last week, we held a University-wide memorial service for our three slain nursing professors. I can only speak for myself when I say that on this day, there was no anger. There was sadness and tears, laughter and gratitude for the gifts these women gave to us. There was solidarity and solemnity as we slowly marched across campus with the toll of the bell. We stood in tearful silence --- over a thousand of us ---- in the courtyard of the College of Nursing while a Native American healer spoke prayers of blessings and cleansed our environment with the sweet smelling burning sage. Baskets of rose petals were passed among the crowd and we took handfuls. We all slowly, calmly and quietly walked into the nursing building together, tracing the path that the student killer had taken that morning on his death journey. I began to worry: would I be able to go into the classroom on the top floor where my friends had been killed? Would I see them, in my mind's eye, lying there on the floor? I decided to wait and see how I felt inside the building. As we walked through each of the four floors, the healer drifted past us, burning sage and saying prayers of cleansing. Rose petals blanketed all the hallways and stairwells. The pink, red and white flowers created a soft, gentle transforming energy. I felt cushioned and protected by all the people around me as we made our way through the building. Finally reaching the fourth floor classroom, I stepped inside to find the room filled with people. The nursing students who had witnessed the murder of their instructors were seated in a circle on the floor; some crying, others taking turns speaking what was in their hearts. I listened to them, then sprinkled the last of my rose petals to the floor, and descended back down the stairs to begin my own journey of healing.

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