MOVING FORWARD

Bonnie Kate Pourciau working hard to recover from Colorado shooting

Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Bonnie Kate Pourciau, who was wounded in the knee in the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July, works with orthopedic clinical specialist and Peak performance Physical Therapy director Jason Greene during physical therapy in November.
Advocate staff photo by RICHARD ALAN HANNON -- Bonnie Kate Pourciau, who was wounded in the knee in the theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July, works with orthopedic clinical specialist and Peak performance Physical Therapy director Jason Greene during physical therapy in November.

Bonnie Kate Pourciau likes to wear a flower in her dark hair. There’s usually a bouquet of fresh flowers in her house where she can pick one up.

To a recent physical therapy session, she wore a bright-colored one — a flag of cheer in the face of the difficult, painful work of recovering the full use of her left leg.

Pourciau, who turned 19 in September, goes to physical therapy three times a week for the injuries she suffered in July when a gunman opened fire on the audience in an Aurora, Colo., movie theater.

A meticulously planned road trip out West with a friend had been slowed a bit by drought and fires in Colorado, so the movie was just an afterthought when they stopped in Aurora on July 19 and decided to take in the midnight premiere of the Batman movie, “The Dark Knight Rises.”

“I’m not even that big of a Batman fan,” Pourciau said.

It’s one of the little ironies that seems to make that night even more senseless. Because nothing makes sense about that night.

James Holmes, a former neuroscience graduate student, has been charged with killing 12 people and injuring 58 others, according to Associated Press reports. Pourciau was shot in the left knee.

Since then, she’s had five surgeries and still needs crutches or a wheelchair to get around, depending on the circumstances. The pain in her leg is fairly constant.

It’s expected that she’ll have a few more months of physical therapy and should be able to walk on her own, by then, said her father, Trace Pourciau.

Dealing with chronic pain that she’s been told to expect for about a year, Pourciau is gradually taking less and less of the several medications, including muscle relaxants and pain medicine, that have helped her, she said.

At some point, there will be a knee replacement, but not until after she starts walking.

In the meantime, the intensive physical therapy leaves her exhausted and often in tears at home afterward.

“The first time I came in … (in August) I threw up from the pain,” Pourciau said. “I cried — and I don’t cry in front of people.

“Now I cry afterward,” she added, with a smile.

Vivacious and generous with her thoughts, Pourciau radiates optimism, despite the challenges she’s faced.

A couple of weeks before Christmas, her cellphone’s voice-mail message was a whimsical take on being the voice of Tinker Bell.

“Have a magical day!” she said to callers leaving a message.

A deep faith in God has carried her through the days before and since, she said.

“It’s not faith that God will get you well,” Pourciau explained. “Faith is, ‘I don’t get what’s going on ... and I don’t like it, but I trust you.’ … Faith is, ‘It’s not working out like I want, but I trust you.’”

She’s trying to be patient with her recovery as the healing of her knee “kind of dominates” her days instead of things she usually likes to do, Pourciau said.

She loves the outdoors. Home-schooled, like her six younger siblings, Pourciau said that “ever since I was a little child, I pretty much did all my homework in a tree.”

She loves growing flowers, and “always ask for bulbs and seeds for my birthday.”

She’s a top-notch baker, too, and when she was able to intern with a pastry chef in New York, prior to her Western travels this past summer, she found she already knew much of what the course was covering, the making of croissants, torts and fine pastries.

Pourciau is artistic as well, and especially likes to work with watercolors. She’d like to do a children’s book one day.

“I love little children,” she said.

As the nation grieves for the loss of life in Connecticut, where on Dec. 14 a gunman killed 26 people at an elementary school, including 20 children, Pourciau is grieving anew, too, as someone who has been through a similar, terrifying experience.

Pourciau, speaking on the Monday after the shootings in Connecticut, said that it had been a difficult weekend.

“That was harder than my being shot. My heart completely broke,” Pourciau said. “I was grieving, hurting so much for the families and thinking of the little children going through what I had gone through.”

A summer interrupted

Pourciau had graduated early in March, then embarked on a busy summer.

She first headed off to Haiti to do mission work through Respire Haiti, a nonprofit that focuses on helping children.

Pourciau’s idea was to take a year off, before making her decisions about college. She’s drawn to mission work and hopes to return to it one day.

Back home in the U.S., Pourciau continued her summer with a family vacation to the beach and then took a trip to New York with one of her sisters and some friends, before her trip out West.

Pourciau flew up to Seattle to meet her friend Elizabeth Sumrall, who lived there and was planning to move back to Baton Rouge.

Sumrall had packed her things and had carefully planned a fun road trip back home, Pourciau said.

“We went to Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore. We stopped to pick flowers,” Pourciau said.

And, then in Aurora, the trip came to an end.

Pourciau remembers the way the theater in Aurora filled with smoke as the gunman first threw in a tear-gas canister and then began firing.

She could “see little sparks” and had pulled her friend down behind a row of seats.

“It was weird because the movie was still going,” Pourciau said, adding that she wasn’t afraid. “God’s peace just totally wrapped around me.”

Pourciau said she’s forgiven the shooter.

When she finally saw him on TV, “he looked so sad ... so hopeless.”

Holmes has been in jail since the attack and by mid-December had not entered a plea in the case, according to the Associated Press.

Pourciau spent a week in a hospital in Colorado, her parents Kathleen and Trace by her side, then about a month at Our Lady of the Lake in Baton Rouge.

Moving forward

At a recent physical therapy session, Pourciau did stretching exercises and challenging strengthening work.

“Whenever I do the single-knee thing, there’s a super sharp pain, like a little knife in there,” she said, as the physical therapist had her moving her left leg against the resistance of an exercise band.

But no one would know it hurts.

Pourciau seems naturally athletic and said she’s always been active, taking part in soccer, basketball and tennis.

To describe the physical aftermath of the shooting, she pointed to scars on her leg, a kind of map of the injuries and treatments she’s received.

One long scar on the back of her left leg is where the saphenous artery, which was taken from her right leg, was put into place in her injured left leg.

The popliteal artery, which supplies blood to the knee joint and muscles of the leg, burst in her left leg in the attack, and doctors at one point were afraid she might lose her leg, she said.

“The bullet didn’t touch the artery,” Pourciau said. “The artery damage was done from the velocity of the impact.”

The shooter used a combat-style, assault weapon. Pieces of the bullet remain in her leg.

Two long scars on the front of Pourciau’s left leg are from incisions made to relieve pressure from swelling of the leg muscles, she said.

The “polka dots,” she said, pointing to small, round scars in an even pattern on the front of her upper left leg, came from an external fixator she had for a while. It involved holes drilled into undamaged bones near the injury and bolts screwed into place and attached to an external rod to keep her knee straight.

Outwardly, her knee, itself, appears to be relatively unscathed. But it was badly injured.

She suffered what’s called a tibial plateau fracture, occurring at the top of the shinbone, and a “big piece (of bone) had jammed down the leg,” said Pourciau, who talks about her injury and treatment with complete and dispassionate authority.

Marrow was taken from her hip to mix with a man-made medical substance to grow new bone in her knee, she said.

The meniscus, a soft disc that cushions the knee, was driven out of place by the impact of the bullet and was repaired and raised to once again support the knee bone, Pourciau’s father said.

A permanent, supportive plate was put down the side of her leg, with 10 screws, Bonnie Kate Pourciau said.

At the Pourciau family home recently, Bonnie Kate sat in the large kitchen of her home, with her mother, some of her siblings, and a first cousin, Esme Davis, 16, of Georgia.

Davis is the oldest girl cousin of the Pourciau children’s 45 cousins. Large families run on the maternal side of Bonnie Kate Pourciau’s family.

It was the first time Davis had seen Pourciau since the shooting, and Davis had surprised the family by driving through the night and arriving ahead of time.

When Pourciau came home from the hospital, she switched from her bedroom upstairs to one downstairs that she shares with her next oldest sister, Madeline.

Madeline Pourciau looked after the younger children when her parents were with Bonnie Kate in Colorado.

“Everyone has definitely grown a lot closer in a lot of ways,” said Madeline Pourciau, a student at Baton Rouge Community College.

Bonnie Kate Pourciau’s mother said the family is grateful for the faith that has sustained their daughter and sister.

“‘Believe in the darkness what you knew in the light’” is something her daughter and the family have lived by in recent months, Kathleen Pourciau said.

Kathleen Pourciau has written a letter to the mother of the gunman and in early December was planning to mail it.

“I grieve with you and for you,” the letter said in part, as Kathleen Pourciau reached out to another mother, who’s suffering in a different way.

One of the health professionals in Colorado spoke about the possibility of post traumatic stress disorder, but Bonnie Kate Pourciau said she doesn’t feel the need for counseling at this time, though she’s had reflexive, upset reactions twice since the shooting.

One was in the hospital in Colorado, when meal trays accidentally dropped to the floor in a huge crash in the hallway outside her room.

The other happened more recently at a presentation of the nativity scene at a downtown church. Fireworks were an unexpected part of the evening, and at their sound, Pourciau found tears running down her face, she said.

“We first thought that she would have to deal a lot with the mental aspect of the trauma and all,” said dad Trace Pourciau.

Bonnie Kate Pourciau has a “good support base and faith. She’s coped well, but it’s always there,” he said.

When she looks back at the shooting she was caught in, Bonnie Kate Pourciau describes the way it felt like “the most horrible, traumatic, dark thing in the world.

“I don’t really think anybody can really process that, a massacre,” she said, but “What that man meant for evil, God is using for good.”