Friends of Sean Graves are quick to say that he’ll do anything to help others — except give them the shirt off his back.
To hide the scars from bullets that struck him during the Columbine High shootings 10 years ago, Graves always keeps his shirt on. He doesn’t want others to see the scars and make pre-judgments. He doesn’t want them to know that he almost bled to death.
But most of all, Graves doesn’t want people to connect him to the Columbine massacre and be tempted to ask questions about the worst day of his life.
“I think people connect it, but they won’t come out and say it,” Graves says.
A decade after the Columbine shootings changed his life and the lives of countless others, Graves, now 25, greets each day as a new opportunity to live a normal life — despite the fact that everyday tasks like walking up stairs will always be a challenge.
Graves, then 15, was shot six times during the Columbine attack. He thought it was a senior prank when he saw Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold shattering the windows of the cafeteria with their weapons.
The first five bullets that hit him caused searing agony as Graves ran back into the school and away from what he had originally thought were paintball guns. He collapsed when the sixth bullet spiraled though his backpack, ripped a hole through a notebook inside and paralyzed him from the waist down as he opened the cafeteria door.
“I could tell that something happened, but at the same time I could tell that something was there, and then it was gone,” he said, describing the sensation of being shot. Graves didn’t realize the bullets were real until he heard the screams of other students from the library above.
Graves recalls being the thirstiest he had ever been as he lay bleeding on the floor amid jagged shards of glass. Unable to move his legs and hearing footsteps approaching, he covered his face, held his breath and feigned death. The shooters moved on.
Graves has had more than 40 surgeries. He was first taken to Swedish Hospital and was eventually transferred to Craig Hospital for rehabilitation. Doctors told him he would never walk again.
“I was praying to God that I could walk again,” he says.
He continued to attend Columbine and went to rehabilitation every day. Graves took his first few steps outside his home with the help of a cane at his graduation in May 2002 and has been able to walk ever since.
He is still partially paralyzed and has little feeling in his right leg. When he walks, he swings and lifts his right leg out from the hip.
Driven to help others
Graves would do anything to help anyone out, says Theresa Dehart, his fiancee’s mother, but she worries about him at times.
Though he still has difficulty walking on surfaces such as carpet, sand and grass, he does what he can to help friends and family with everything from homework to building projects.
Graves loves to come home to his house in Morrison and cook for his fiancée, Kara Dehart, despite the heartburn he gets after every meal because much of his digestive tract was destroyed by the bullets and removed during surgeries.
“I find cooking to be a release — I enjoy cooking and taking my time cooking,” he says.
Graves also spends time playing violent and admittedly addictive video games that feature gunshot sounds and gore. The irony of Graves playing “Halo 3” on his high-definition television makes even him giggle.
“I’m into first-person shooter games,” he says, acknowledging the criticism violent video games received in the wake of the Columbine shootings.
In many ways Graves has moved beyond his past, but the emotional scars from seeing friends die — and almost dying himself — still take a toll. And, he gets angry when his physical limitations get in the way, Theresa Dehart says.
Graves fell during Kara Dehart’s graduation from nursing school and was so angry that he might have embarrassed her, he didn’t speak for a few hours.
Not only does Graves get frustrated with himself if he falls, Theresa Dehart says, he gets upset if people try to help.
“He cares what people think,” Theresa Dehart says. “He just doesn’t want people to think he’s falling because he’s disabled.”
Graves also has nightmares that replay the Columbine shootings each year from late February through April.
“I get more and more paranoid tendencies around the 20th each year,” he says.
The dreams make him irritable and dredge up the past, says Kara Dehart. Before he was shot, Graves’ biggest fear was being paralyzed — when he was younger, his nightmares were about becoming paralyzed. Those nightmares stopped the day they came true.
“We’ve never gone to any of the structured events for the anniversary,” Graves says. “Just because it’s a bad day doesn’t mean we can’t have fun.”
Every year on April 20, Graves returns to the spot where his best friend, Daniel Rohrbough, was fatally shot to smoke a cigar in his honor before anyone else arrives. Then he leaves on a vacation.
“Life can be difficult for him sometimes, and I think he can get frustrated. But he bounces back really well,” Theresa Dehart says. “It also really works with his heart and makes him really strive to make himself be able to do the things he wants to do.”
And among those things is making a difference by helping others.
“He is an ambassador for the Christopher Reeve Foundation,” Kara Dehart says. “He has fought for a cure using every ounce he had.”
Graves had a close relationship with actor Christopher Reeve, who visited him at Craig Hospital. Reeve died on Graves’ 21st birthday, and Graves says he spent the whole day in tears. But he continues to fight for a cure for paralysis.
He has a framed letter from Reeve on the wall in his office, among other letters sent to him over the years. A black bookshelf stretches from carpet to ceiling, full of notebooks containing get-well letters, newspaper articles and children’s drawings from around the world.
But despite all the reminders of the past that Sean Graves must deal with every day, his life is constantly moving forward.
“I watched him grow into this person that is so different than the first person that I met, and it’s really fun to see him do well. He deserves to do well,” Theresa Dehart says.
Graves looks forward to owning his own business or perhaps becoming a crime scene investigator. But he is philosophical about where the future might lead.
“Wherever life takes me, I’ll go there,” Graves says. “As long as I’m happy, it doesn’t matter. If you believe, you can make it happen.”