Tuesday, May 08, 2018
A split-second decision saved his life in the Parkland shooting. The trauma haunts him.
CHABELI HERRERA Miami Herald May 8, 2018
He thought he’d be safe backstage, out of the spotlight, away from the shadows that prowled the edges of his vision when his guard was down.
Crowds spooked him now. It was seven weeks since he had locked eyes with a black-masked gunman taking aim at him in the midst of the worst school shooting in Florida’s history. Seven weeks since he’d made the split-second decision that saved his life but left a softball-sized hole in his leg. Seven weeks since he’d seen bullets lodging in the wall around him as he ran past bodies of his classmates in a wild panic to survive.
But at this annual gathering of Broward County teens, 15-year-old Kyle Laman thought he’d be OK, sitting tucked to the side, his wheelchair glinting in the half-light reflected from the audience. The high school freshman, flanked by friends, was there to listen to politicians and students discuss a topic dominating conversations across the United States and newly vital to Kyle: school safety.
Then he glimpsed something in the crowd — a dark figure, a shadow, a movement — that took on an all-too-familiar shape.
The reaction was swift and involuntary. Blood rushed through his body, his temperature rose and his heartbeat pounded in his ears. His eyes fixed on the shadow. He couldn’t look away.
It was Feb. 14 again.
For the the past 2 1/2 months, the survivors of confessed shooter Nikolas Cruz’s schoolhouse slaughter have begun to bear new burdens: the crippling guilt of survival, the excruciating process of recovery. The tormenting reminders of the day when a barrage of bullets ripped through their affluent South Florida suburb and left them with death and broken bodies and fear.
For Kyle, there are days when the bad thoughts are dormant, when he thinks he’s conquering the pain. There are times when he makes it through almost the entire school day, and days when he goes to physical therapy, watches movies on the couch or wades in the pool like any other teen.
Kyle Laman at home with his dogs. Katie, the family’s American bulldog, sleeps next to him and Bruce, his new German Shepherd Service dog, plays with him below. Bruce was sent to him from the Matt Martin Foundation and Paws 4 Liberty to help with his anxiety and panic attacks following the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
The day at the Teen Political Forum seemed like it could be one of those days — and an accomplishment. Willingly attending a loud event with an impassioned crowd isn’t easy. But Cruz followed him there, too.
In an instant, Kyle was back in the hallway at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. The fire alarm ringing. A cluster of students moving slowly at first and then scattering to reveal Cruz — looking straight at him and lifting the muzzle of an AR-15.
There are days when the images overpower Kyle, when he’s in class or in a mass of people, at home where he feels safest or when it grows silent. Cruz barges back into his life.
Cruz and the gun, pointed at him. Cruz and the gun. Cruz and the gun. Cruz and the gun.
Kyle tried to put words to the feelings. “You automatically feel unsafe. Your brain is on total shutdown, blocking everything... I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through ...knowing what my brain has seen and what I’ve seen.”
In the auditorium, his friend and fellow MSD student Kellie Wanamaker noticed he was staring at one spot without blinking. She saw him trying to jolt himself out of the flashback with a trick he has developed since the shooting, snapping his fingers and shaking his head. She could see it wasn’t working.
“What happened,” she asked, shaking him on the shoulder. “Are you OK?”
That did it. He looked around, breathed.
“Yeah, I’m good,” he told her. “I’m fine…ish.”
In the months that follow mass shootings, the grisly details often blur in the public consciousness. People become saturated. What just about everyone will remember about Feb.14, 2018: A teenage gunman killed 17 people, mostly students, as he went floor to floor in a building at a Florida high school. For those who live in the area, a few more details — but not many more — will stick.
But for the ones who lived through it, the moments remain horrifyingly crisp. Classes have resumed but the emotional price is still being tallied. No one knows yet whether survivors like Kyle will be able to rebuild their lives, or if Cruz will claim another victim.
On that sunny day in Parkland, six people were murdered on the third floor of the 1200 building , and 11 more on the first floor.
Seventeen people were wounded and lived, three of them on the third floor.
Kyle was one of them.
Bullets and blood
In study hall that day, Kyle wasn’t studying. He was watching his friend Tyler West play chess with Peter Wang, a fellow JROTC cadet.
It was Valentine’s Day, and his last period of the day. School had been boring, he said. His plans for later on: Go home. Do nothing, or maybe fish in the lake by his Coral Springs home.
He had always been an active kid — loved motocross, wakeboarding, snowboarding when his parents take him on a winter vacation and playing Airsoft, a game where players shoot each other with BB pellets from guns that look an awful lot like real rifles. School, he says, is the worst, though he makes mostly A’s and B’s.
Still, he liked Stoneman Douglas. His family had moved to Coral Springs from Sunrise, a nearby suburb, in October so he could start high school there.
The fire alarm rang — the second time that day. “Ordinary culinary,” he thought, an assumption that some kid in the culinary class in a nearby building had, for the umpteenth time, burned something.
Kyle ambled out of his classroom — Room 1249 on the third floor of the 1200 building, also known as the freshman building— and popped his white Beats headphones over one ear.
The hall was filled with kids but no one was really moving. He was at the far west end and he couldn’t see to the east end, where everyone seemed to be looking.
“Are the doors locked?” someone wondered. “Is there a fire?”
Then the crowd started pushing, a jostling that burst into terror.
Students broke into a run toward the stairwell behind Kyle. His teacher, Ernest Rospierski, shouted over them: “Get to the classroom!” But the classroom doors had auto-locked during the drill, Kyle knew, and there was nowhere to go.
And then he heard shots. A round tore through the third floor hallway. He remembered later that it smelled like Fourth of July fireworks. That was different from any other “active shooter” drill he’d been through before.
“This is fake,” Kyle reassured himself. “But I'm going to run.”
Before he did, he lingered one crucial second longer to peek at the source of the commotion. Just then, the crowd scattered, leaving a clear path before Cruz at the far end of the hallway and Kyle, at the other end.
Kyle and the rest of the world would later learn that Cruz had already killed 11 people on the first floor before he made it up the east stairwell to the hallway where Kyle stood at 2:24 p.m. But the sound of the shots hadn’t carried to the third floor, so when Kyle saw the man dressed in black aiming at him, his response was purely instinctive.
He dove to the left, out of the line of fire, bullets zinging past him, into an alcove.
His friend, Tyler, was hiding there too, eyes wide. The color drained from his face as he saw Kyle’s leg.
Kyle looked down and saw blood and skin spattered on his favorite gray Vans sneakers. The top of his right ankle was missing. He could see exposed tendons. His foot felt as though it had been set ablaze.
“Tyler, we have to go,” Kyle told him.
“Are you insane? You’re shot!” Tyler replied in a frantic whisper.
“I'm serious, let’s go,” Kyle hissed back.
Then he noticed another boy, next to Tyler, shot through the knee. He asked them to help him. He couldn’t walk.
“Oh my god, what do we do? We can’t stay here,” Kyle told Tyler.
Kyle took a quick look around the corner and saw Cruz facing into a classroom, shooting and then reloading.
He had no more time. He ran, despite the leg that was now gushing blood — Tyler trailing somewhere behind him — across the hall into a classroom doorway, then toward the doors to the stairwell. Around him, he saw puffs of dust as bullets hit the wall.
The doors were jammed — by a body, another person, a student hiding, he didn't know what.
Out in the open, Kyle was sure his luck had run out.
“I thought I was dead," he said later. “It was too much time.”
He had also caught sight of the hallway in his mad dash. He saw red on the walls and floor, and bodies, too many to count. Maybe four, maybe five. Six? A girl lay on the ground, blood gushing from a wound in her abdomen.
But Cruz didn’t train his gun on Kyle again, and the door to the stairwell gave way. He spotted his teacher behind the door out of the corner of his eye, and someone else who looked dead, before running as fast as he could down the stairs.
The day before, during a CrossFit training, he had run up and down seven flights of stairs in 49 seconds. His body was still sore from the exercise when he made his way down stairs of the 1200 building. His foot, where the bullet had pierced a tendon that controls vertical movement, was somehow, impossibly, still moving up and down.
He kept going.
“This is not happening, this is not happening, this is not happening,” he thought.
He reached the first floor. The exit was partly blocked by another body, someone he knew: assistant football coach Aaron Feis. The sight stopped him for a split second. He tried to step around the body.
And then he was out. Running toward the senior parking lot, screaming and looking for anyone who could help, anyone who could give him first aid, anyone who could explain what he’d just seen. He didn’t know if Cruz was still behind him.
He saw just one adult, a tall man in black basketball shorts and a white T-shirt running toward the building.
They sprinted toward each other.
‘Can you run?’
Sgt. Jeff Heinrich wasn’t on duty. He was watering the baseball field at MSD on a day off from his job at the Coral Springs Police Department, where he works road patrol.
Heinrich’s ties to the school run deep: People in Parkland and Coral Springs, where the police officer grew up, know the school for its stellar academic record. His wife, Marilyn Rule Heinrich, works there as the assistant athletic director. Three years ago, his eldest son Kevin started school there, too.
Watering the infield was last on his list of volunteer tasks that afternoon. It was near the end of the school day and the team would come jogging out for practice.
Sgt. Jeff Heinrich, an officer with the Coral Springs Police Dept., was off duty and watering the infield at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School on Feb. 14 when he heard shots and started running toward the school.
When the fire alarm went off, followed by a series of five or six loud pops, Heinrich wasn’t alarmed. No stranger to teenagers pulling a prank — he had recently worked as a school resource officer at nearby Coral Springs High — he knew the alarm could be anything. Smoke bombs, maybe firecrackers.
“Knuckleheads,” he thought, and kept watering.
But he kept an eye on the buildings. He could see students walking out of the freshman building. About 15 seconds later: another round of pops.
This time, he recognized the pattern, singular enough to erase a hope the 22-year police veteran hadn’t realized he was clinging to. You don’t believe it could be gunfire at a school, he explained later, or you try not to.
He didn’t have a weapon. He was wearing basketball shorts and T-shirt with the word “Seriously” on the front, a joke about the baseball coach’s most-used word. He ran down the football field and toward the 1300 building, unsure where the shots were coming from.
He found a guard in a golf cart, who confirmed what Heinrich feared: “There’s an active shooter.” He also gave Heinrich some heart-stopping news. Someone was already down.
Outside the 1200 building, students were now sprinting to get out — and screaming. They tripped over one another, over books and teddy bears and heart-shaped balloons whose pops joined the ones echoing from inside the building.
The cop didn’t recognize the boy who was running at him, screaming, with a terrifyingly large chunk of flesh missing from his right ankle.
Heinrich dodged cars and students until he caught up with the boy. He pulled him behind a car, unsure still if the shooter was nearby. Round after round of shots went off.
The boy said there was a shooter on the third floor and that he’d seen bodies. He was wild-eyed but still coherent.
Heinrich looked at him. He would later write in his report that he feared the “leg injury was life-threatening.”
“Can you run?”
“Yes, I can run, I can run,” the boy replied.
“You’re going to be all right, but we have to go,” Heinrich told him.
They took a few steps. The boy dropped his white Beats headphones and, without thinking, went back to grab them.
“Let’s go,” Heinrich said, and they went, across the parking lot, the length of the football field and around the baseball diamond to the clubhouse, the boy slowing to a jog as blood began pooling in one sneaker and sloshing inside, like he’d stepped in a puddle. He left a trail of blood behind them.
In his report, Heinrich said he spotted a Broward Sheriff’s deputy on the other side of the fence as he ran with Kyle: “I began yelling at that there was an active killer and that I have a gunshot victim.”
In the clubhouse, Heinrich grabbed the big red first aid bag from on top of the lockers. He ripped it open and sat the boy down on a bench. The kid was fumbling with his iPhone, trying to reach his mom, his dad, anyone. Only his paternal grandmother, Pauline Laman, answered at first. His parents hadn’t yet heard about the school shooting.
“Grandma, grandma, I’ve been shot, I’ve been shot. I’m bleeding,” Kyle told her.
Heinrich pulled on a pair of latex gloves and stuffed the boy’s wound with all the gauze he could find in the kit, and then wrapped the ankle in elastic bandages to try to control the bleeding. Blood had already stained the carpet in the clubhouse.
He grabbed his cellphone and dialed, out of habit, into Coral Springs PD’s non-emergency number, requesting paramedics and giving an account of what he’d seen, including the boy’s description of the shooter. That part of the call was cut off but the boy repeated it to paramedics and later to police at the hospital. It became one of the key descriptions used to apprehend Cruz in a nearby neighborhood about an hour later.
When the sound of fire rescue sirens pierced the cacophony outside, Heinrich went out to meet with the ambulance and then called his wife.
She and his son, by some twist of luck, had ended up together, both hiding inside a storage closet in the culinary classrooms with another 62 students and two teachers.
Heinrich spent the next hours clearing out classrooms and directing students away from the school. In snatched moments in between, he thought back to October 2016, when there had been a gun scare at Coral Springs High. He had been the school resource officer who discovered a former student on campus with a 9mm handgun in his waistband and another student with a seven-page written manifesto detailing his plans to shoot up the school. Heinrich’s role in the incident had contributed to his promotion to sergeant a few months earlier.
“Back then we were like, ‘This could have been really bad,’” he said. “You always have it in the back of your mind that something like that could happen, but you don’t necessarily expect it.”
That night, around 10 p.m., Heinrich headed to a staging area at the police department where officers were being debriefed. The FBI was collecting samples from people who had blood on them.
His looked down. His hands were covered in dried blood. He was still wearing the latex gloves he’d worn to treat the boy with the ankle wound.
His thoughts returned to the kid: “Had he bled out? Would he lose his foot? Please, let him be OK.”
The gaping hole in Kyle’s ankle was caused by what his surgeons called the “blast effect” from the bullet of the AR-15, which travels three times faster than a bullet from a handgun. In a typical handgun injury, the bullet follows a linear track.
But an AR-15 bullet carves a wide path of destruction, the damage extending for several inches out from the point where it tears into flesh. One bullet can shred an organ. Even a graze can cause catastrophic damage.
In Kyle’s case, doctors realized in the days after the shooting that he would have to undergo a complex, nine-hour surgery — one of three while he was in the hospital. An artery was missing and a tendon had been all but severed. If the operation didn’t go well, they were considering amputation.
Plastic surgeons Christopher Low and Michael Cheung said adrenaline and a will to survive were probably the only things that got Kyle down the stairs of the 1200 building and across a football field.
During Kyle’s nine-hour surgery, doctors carved a patch of flesh, muscle and tendon, about half a foot long, from his right thigh and used it to cover the area on his foot that was blasted by the bullet.
The football-shaped, half a foot long flap of skin that now covers Kyle Laman’s right ankle.
The surgery left Kyle with a flap of skin over the front of his foot, creating an odd-looking protrusion in the shape of a football.
The bump is a result of taking thick thigh skin and muscle and placing it on an area that normally has very thin skin. The flap is light colored and the edges are red from sutures. On the sides, where the flap doesn’t extend, doctors have placed skin grafts taken from Kyle’s left thigh.
His parents affectionately call the protuberance “Frankenfoot.”
The pain that followed the surgery dwarfed the agony of the gunshot wound, Kyle said.
He woke up, pale and swollen, to find metal rods piercing the bones in his right foot and tibia. A metal contraption called an external fixator encircled his foot, preventing it from moving up and down while the newly attached tendon healed.
Once, his foot cramped while he had the fixator on, forcing his bones against the metal rods. Kyle said it felt like his foot had been hacked by an ax — but the ax had been left in his leg. He cried that night, said his mother, Marie Laman.
The surgeries took a toll. Kyle was in the hospital for 16 days, 13 in the intensive care unit. He was bedridden for more than a month. It wasn’t until around the time he returned to school, on April 2, that he was fitted with a heavy black boot. It allows him to walk for short periods, but awkwardly — he needs to kick out with the leg to take a step.
Kyle Laman, a 15-year-old freshman at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, after he underwent a nine-hour surgery to transfer a portion of skin and muscle from his thigh to his right ankle. The surgery left him with metal rods in his foot.
Still, he can take it off to go in the pool. Doctors expect that, eventually, he will be able to walk on his own again.
Kyle’s mother was a volunteer firefighter after serving in the Army and he has hopes of becoming a firefighter one day, too. Or an Air Force pilot. Or, he now says, a doctor.
The police officer, Heinrich, tracked Kyle down to Broward Health Medical Center about three days after the shooting through posts on Facebook and papers in the boy’s backpack left behind at school. In his two decades on the force, he’s seen several gunshot wounds, he said, but never the kind of damage that a single AR-15 bullet did to Kyle’s foot.
Heinrich quickly became a regular visitor and trusted friend to Kyle and his family: his mom, Marie, dad Franz and 12-year-old sister, Mya. They joke and tease each other as if they’d known each other for years, and it’s clear that this bond is something special.
In March, Heinrich and his wife and kids flew to Washington, D.C., with the Lamans — on a plane provided by the New England Patriots — to the March For Our Lives, a student-led rally calling for stricter gun control. Heinrich pushed Kyle in his wheelchair from event to event, appearing in nationally circulated photos.
Sgt. Jeff Heinrich, with Coral Springs Police Department, pushes 15-year-old MSD shooting survivor Kyle Laman at the March For Our Lives rally in Washington D.C. in late March.
“In this job, you don’t always affect people the same way,” he said on a recent April afternoon, as he sat in the Lamans’ family room. “[Kyle] leans on me and he’s part of our life because none of our lives are going to ever be the same since that day.”
He blinked through tears.
“Everybody lost a piece of them,” he said.
From the kitchen, where he had been surveying his lunch options, Kyle glanced up at the discussion of his wound and the bond between cop and kid. With a mischievous smile, he turned the heavy moment into something lighter.
“Oh Jeff, are you gonna cry?” Kyle asked in a high-pitched voice, mocking Heinrich for his penchant for crying. (“Even in movies,” Heinrich admitted.)
“What me? No!” Heinrich said, grinning, as Marie Laman chuckled from the kitchen.
“I almost did earlier though,” he allowed.
Kyle bent over in a fit of giggles.
“And you wonder why I don’t like these people,” Heinrich joked to a reporter.
“I’m just surprised he deals with my s--- every day,” Kyle said.
“Me too,” Heinrich admitted.
“Me three!” Marie Laman chimed in.
Living with guilt
Marie Laman rarely had problems with her 15-year-old son before the shooting. He was a goofy, talkative kid with a round face and almond-shaped hazel eyes. He loved video games and was generally ambivalent about school.
He’s still all those things, she said, but he’s also grown sullen. His mood swings are more frequent. And sometimes he’s angry and doesn’t know why.
“He has this entitlement about [the shooting] a little bit, where I have to bring him back down to reality,” she said.
It’s a complicated balancing act: People sympathize with Kyle for what he’s gone through and want to please him — with leniency, with praise, with gifts — but for his parents, how much is too much? When is it OK to say no and set boundaries again?
“I have a hard time. I'm like, ‘We have to go to physical therapy, get off the game,’ and he's like, ‘They can wait,’ ” Laman said. “I'm like, ‘Um, no. Like who the hell are you?’ ”
Marie Laman holds the hand of her son, 15-year-old Kyle Laman, after he underwent a nine-hour surgery to repair a massive wound to his ankle incurred during the Marjory Stoneman Douglas school shooting.
Kyle’s recovery has become the family’s focus, and things like school and tests and quizzes have become secondary. The Florida Department of Education has eased requirements on Stoneman Douglas students in ninth, tenth and eleventh grades by allowing them to take their standardized tests over the summer or during the next school year to give them more time to prepare.
Kyle needs the extra time. He returned to school later than most students, after spring break. The discipline of attending classes, his parents hope, will help rebuild some sense of normalcy. Most days, though, he still leaves school early. And he’s never gone back to study hall.
He and his friends talk openly about post-traumatic stress disorder, though Kyle hasn’t been diagnosed with the condition. His first appointment with the family’s psychologist hasn’t happened yet. His friends want to help, Laman said, but she’s often taken aback by the matter-of-fact way they discuss PTSD and triggers. Sometimes, she said, she thinks that talk may hurt more than it helps.
“They're like, ‘OK, can you go into that kind of situation? There’s a crowd.’ Before they said that, the crowd wouldn’t even have dawned on him, it wouldn't have bothered him, and then they say, ‘Well you have PTSD, the crowd might bother you.’ Like, don't tell him that,” she said, sighing.
Kyle’s parents feel they’re at a crossroads.
“Right now, it can break him down and this can ruin him for life, or it can bring him up and make him stronger,” Marie Laman said.
Surrounded by family and friends while sipping a cold drink, Kyle Laman attends a fundraiser for his recovery held at Hurricane Wings & Grill on April 28. Ten percent of total sales on that day went to his fund. Seated to the left is Coral Springs Commissioner Larry Vignola and on the right is Sgt. Jeff Heinrich, who treated Kyle’s wound on the day of the shooting.
Friends and families applaud the Lamans for staying upbeat throughout what has been a complete upheaval of the lives they once knew. But sometimes, the strain is evident.
Perhaps the heaviest burden is guilt.
Cruz eventually returned to kill the boy who was shot in the knee on the third floor, the one Kyle couldn’t help. Kyle won’t say who he was out of respect for the boy’s family. But it gnaws at him.
“It’s really hard to say because I feel really bad about it. And Tyler couldn’t do anything to help either, he was going to die too, so he ran,” Kyle said. “It was a really hard decision to make.”
Maybe if he had a gun, he said later,he could have covered the injured boy, like he does for his friends when he plays Airsoft. He has the game’s guns hanging on the wall of his bedroom.
“We told him, ‘It’s OK, you tried. It’s OK,’” his mother said. “That’s why it bothers him when people call him a hero. He’s like, ‘I’m not. I tried. I wasn’t.’ ”
Laman feels guilt, too, when she meets with the families of the students who died. Three of Kyle’s friends were killed: Jaime Guttenberg, who he knew but not well, Martin Duque and Peter Wang, the boy whose last happy moments Kyle witnessed, as he played chess with Tyler. Tyler survived.
The families of the dead have offered to help the Lamans during Kyle’s recovery. That floored Marie Laman. How can they feel bad for Kyle, when he lived and their children didn’t?
The families directly affected by the shooting have met several times with Broward State Attorney Michael Satz, the prosecutor handling the state’s case against Cruz, who is charged with 17 counts of murder and 17 counts of attempted murder. As one of the first to describe the shooter, Kyle will likely be a key witness. He’ll have to recount the story again in detail — maybe more than once. The process could take a greater toll on him, Laman fears.
Nikolas Cruz during a court hearing in Fort Lauderdale. Cruz faces 17 charges of premeditated murder and 17 charges of attempted murder.
When prosecutors first spoke to them, Laman said she had a hard time with the idea of condemning Cruz to death. She had almost lost her son. Could she wish death upon anyone else, even the person who wielded the gun?
But when she started asking prosecutors questions, she realized that with a life sentence, Cruz would still be allowed to get an education, take classes, even get a doctorate degree. He would have access to the kinds of things he took from 14 high school-age children, Laman said.
She changed her mind. Prosecutors are now seeking the death penalty.
“You get madder and madder and madder, to the point where you’re in that room, and you’re with all the parents of all the other victims and they’re crying and it’s so hard,” Laman said. “You realize it’s not about you. It’s not about Kyle. What this guy did to not only my family, but to 34 other families. And not only 34 other families.
“It’s the whole community. It’s Coral Springs. It’s Parkland.”
Most days, the doorbell rings at the Laman home around 4 p.m., signaling the arrival of food.
Since March 11, the Lamans have been listed on Take Them a Meal, an online service local families are using to organize a constant flow of food to shooting victims and their families. Even now, deliveries — anything from homemade lasagna to a full set of groceries — are scheduled almost every day through June 9.
Brazilian food was on the menu one recent April afternoon: homemade chicken, rice, beans and salad, plus bags of groceries and — to Kyle’s delight — apple pie. The local family that dropped it off, whose daughter was on the first floor of the 1200 building during the shooting but was unhurt, didn’t know the Lamans.
“How is he?” they asked about Kyle, adopting the grave tones the family has become used to hearing.
“Oh, he’s doing really good,” Marie Laman replied, striving for a normal, cheerful response.
Kyle perked up at the sight of the food.
“Oh my God, this looks delicious,” he said after they left, piling a plate with a mound of chicken, rice, beans and apple pie (so he wouldn’t have to make a second trip).
“I’m eating bro,” he said, emphasizing each word. “I’m. Going. To. Eat. This.”
As they do two days a week, Kyle and his mother headed to physical therapy that evening at U18 Sports Medicine in Coral Springs. Most weeks, he visits the orthopedist, his surgeons, and, soon, he’ll add a psychologist to the list.
Under the guidance of Leonard Gordon Jr., Kyle Laman goes though a therapy session at U18 Sports Medicine in Coral Springs. Laman attends physical therapy twice a week for his right ankle.
That April evening, Kyle’s physical therapist, Leonard Gordon, Jr., worked on moving his right foot up and down to help improve his ability to walk.
“Did you hear someone was impersonating me?” Kyle asked Gordon, as he went through the exercises. Someone on Twitter set up an account in his name and started asking for donations, prompting Kyle to sign up for Twitter with his name listed as “the real kyle msd survivor.” The fake Twitter account was later deactivated.
Kyle started attending physical therapy in mid-March and will continue at least through the summer. Gordon increases the difficulty each session.
Kyle pushes himself, too. Later that day, when Gordon had turned away for a moment, Kyle cranked up the resistance on the stationary bike from 10 to 12.
“He’s pretty competitive,” Gordon allowed.
But Kyle didn’t breeze through the whole thing. When Gordon instructed the boy to lift his right leg while Gordon pushed against it, his knee began to shake wildly.
“It’s like a weak duckling,” Kyle said, looking at the knee, disappointed. “I want to disown it.”
Mostly, though, the pain and weakness are welcome signs of progress.
“It’s like, ‘Hey, you’re working out real good,’ ” he said. “The soreness feels good.”
Gordon said he anticipates Kyle will need four to six months of physical therapy, depending on how he’s doing.
“How AM I doing?” Kyle interjected.
“You’re doing great,” Gordon told him.
He added: “We knew he was going to be pretty resilient because of his attitude.”
Doctors Michael Cheung (left) and Christopher Low (center), of CRS Plastic Surgery in Fort Lauderdale, examine Kyle Laman’s AR-15 bullet wound during an April 27 visit. The doctors worked to repair the damage to Kyle’s right ankle by patching the wound with a section of skin and muscle taken from the teen’s thigh. Two months after the surgery, the wound has healed, they said.
Two weeks later at a doctor’s appointment, surgeons Low and Cheung scheduled the next step in Kyle’s recovery: another surgery, on Tuesday, to liposuction his ankle in order to give it a more natural, concave shape. Doctors are encouraged by Kyle’s progress, though cautious about predictions of how well he’ll be able to walk and run when he’s fully healed.
“We are optimistic that he is going to make a recovery to the point where he can go back to do many of the things he used to do,” Low said.
One major milestone in Kyle’s view: At the appointment, doctors said his tendon had healed, two months after the surgery to reattach it. Kyle could drive again. He had gotten his restricted license in January, a month before the shooting, but had barely had a chance to practice.
“You gotta let me drive your Porsche,” he told Cheung. “C’mon, I got shot!”
‘He leans on me’
When Franz Laman’s blue Toyota Tundra pulled up to the Hurricane Wings & Grill in Coral Springs the next day, Kyle was in the driver’s seat of the truck. He took the turn into the shopping center on Coral Ridge Drive at maybe 10 mph (“My dad was like, ‘SLOW DOWN’”), and it took him some maneuvering to park, but he managed it.
The restaurant was holding a fundraiser for Kyle, with 10 percent of sales that Saturday going to his recovery fund. A GoFundMe online account in his name has raised about $50,000 with some of it going to pay off Kyle’s Florida Prepaid college plan, some to cut down the family’s $16,000 in hospital bills, so far, and the rest to Kyle’s savings account.
Kyle Laman (standing, right) with his mom Marie Laman (right) and Sgt. Jeff Heinrich (left) at Hurricane Wings & Grill during a fundraiser for Kyle’s recovery fund in Coral Springs on April 28.
Family, friends and Heinrich attended. So did Coral Springs commissioner Larry Vignola, who also has become close to the family. “A big reason why Kyle was able to dodge bullets and survive in that situation ...is that drive he gets from his parents,” he said.
Kyle’s parents stopped working for about a month when he was in the hospital, rarely leaving his side. Marie Laman now works an abbreviated day at her human resources job in Boca Raton, until 2 p.m. instead of 5 p.m., to be home for Kyle after school. Franz Laman, a BMW mechanic, works his full hours to keep the family afloat. Heinrich helps with Kyle after school, too, but takes on a different role.
Kyle Laman and his dog Bruce hang around with the Coral Springs Parkland Fire Rescue during a visit on April 25.
“Dad tells him, ‘Well, you have to go to school,’ he becomes angry,” Heinrich said. “But I’m like, ‘Yo hey, you have to go to school, you have to get through this, you have to be strong, you have to work through those feelings,’ and things like that. It’s from a different person, so he takes it a little different.”
To help with the anxiety, Heinrich helped set Kyle up with a service dog to train. The 15-week-old German shepherd puppy that he named Bruce came to Coral Springs through a joint effort with the Matt Martin Foundation, founded by the Toronto Maple Leafs hockey player, and Paws 4 Liberty, a Lake Worth-based non-profit.
The puppy is an extra comfort. But when things gets bad at night and he can’t sleep, it’s usually Heinrich he calls. At night, Kyle’s dreams take him back to the shooting. Sometimes, he sees the puff of bullets slamming into concrete. Other times, it’s the bodies. The worst are when it’s Cruz, ready to shoot, but encircled in swirls of fiery red.
With Heinrich, Kyle opens up more than he does with his parents.
“He is an everyday, normal 15-year-old kid, but there are times when he suffers,” Heinrich said. “It’s not about labeling people, it’s about healing. It’s about going through what you have to do to deal with what happened …and don’t let it define you as a person.”
The fragility of safety
After the flashback at the Broward event, Kyle needed to get out. Away from the crowds and the shouting and the thoughts of Cruz taking deadly aim that once again filled his head.
Reliving his trauma exhausts and angers him.
“You are in a pissed off mood. At least for me. I’m pissed off, I don’t want to be there anymore and I want to go home and sleep or play video games and be with my dogs,” Kyle said. “Whatever makes me feel safe.”
But for Kyle, no place is really safe from Nikolas Cruz.
Heading for home that day, Kyle, his mother, and two friends, Kellie and Dylan Persaud, walked toward the parking lot. Dylan pushed Kyle’s wheelchair.
In the lot, they saw one person, a man dressed all in black with his back to their group. Kyle and his friends froze, his mom stopping, too. The man walked behind his sedan and toward his trunk. Time slowed to a crawl.
“What is he going to pull out?” Kyle thought. If it was a gun, they would have nowhere to go. A hot rush of blood and fear bubbled right under the surface, ready to paralyze him again.
The man opened the trunk.
He reached for his shoulder.
Then he shrugged off his suit jacket, threw it inside, slammed the trunk shut, and drove away.
Kyle let out one ragged, deep sigh. He looked ahead, and kept moving.