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Wheelchair-Bound Survivor of Massacre Keeps Her Faith in Life : Tragedy: A young woman ponders her fate in the murderous University of Iowa spree that left six dead, including the gunman.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

She says the worst is over.

The shock has worn off, the fears have faded, Year One has ended.

It was a year with no privacy, no freedom and no way of forgetting what had happened, a year in which a 300-pound wheelchair became a lifeline for a young woman who discovered that strength has little to do with muscle and everything to do with survival.

Her name is Miya Rodolfo-Sioson and for a few, fleeting days, she held the nation’s attention, not for her accomplishments or her activism, but for her terrible misfortune.

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She was the sole survivor of a murderous spree at the University of Iowa that left six people dead, including the gunman.

The public chapter of her story faded quickly. But in the year since, there has been a private epilogue, a tale of a victim of violence starting over, learning to cope without the use of her arms and legs, to live and thrive in a world of loss and limitation.

“I don’t think I’m that brave,” she said. “Most people, given the situation like mine, would pull through too. It’s either do that or you just die. . . . There’s always something worth living for.”

For her, it’s her passion for human rights struggles in El Salvador; she plans a trip there next spring to help film a documentary. And it’s her studies; she’s taking two Spanish courses toward her second undergraduate degree.

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“She has always been determined,” said her mother, Sonya, a former professor. “That has been enhanced. It’s as if she said, ‘So you throw a big rock in my path. You think I’m not going to climb it? I’m going to climb it!’ She’s got her chin in her air.”

“She’s really taken hold of the reins,” her mother said. “She’s well on her way to making something of her life.”

But it will be far different from what Rodolfo-Sioson had planned before that November day in 1991 when she faced the rage of a stranger, a disgruntled doctoral student determined to kill those he believed had denied him a $2,500 academic prize.

She was not in his plans. She was working in a temporary job, a cruel coincidence she has accepted with surprising equanimity.

But Year One as a quadriplegic has not, of course, been as easy to accept.

Call it a period of adjustment.

No longer can she be the fiercely independent soul who, as a 7-month-old baby, snatched the spoon from her mother so she could feed herself. Or the fastidious student who, when growing up, would do her school papers over and over until they were precise and neat enough to meet her standards.

Now, others--including three housemates--brush her teeth, wash her face, comb her hair. They dress her, feed her, put her in bed and lift her out. They take her notes in class.

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They are the doers, she’s the director, and that sometimes rankles her, even though she once worked as a personal attendant for disabled students.

“I’m still a perfectionist,” the soon-to-be 25-year-old student said with a shy smile. “Nobody who works for me is going to be as compulsive about things as I am, so I’m going to have to let things slide sometimes and let them do it their way.”

No longer can she be the young woman in a hurry. Her close friend, housemate and personal-care attendant, Jacque Gharib, recalls that before the shooting, Miya often was the first to phone her in the morning, the last at night, brimming with ideas.

The impatience of youth has been tempered by a new reality. Trips to a class in a van must be scheduled. Some places, such as loud bars, are off-limits: her soft voice, weakened by her paralysis, is barely audible.

No longer can she enjoy cycling and dancing, perform occasionally with a local Palestinian dance troupe.

“Not being able to hug people bugs me sometimes,” she said, sitting erectly, her long hair flowing down the back of her chair. “You feel like there’s a barrier between you and some people.”

But Rodolfo-Sioson focuses on positives and possibilities.

“I can still do a lot,” she said. “It’s not like I was a great athlete or a great dancer where I would have been devastated. I have always been first and foremost a student and an activist. My physical disability doesn’t preclude that.”

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Her 3 1/2 months at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago put it all in perspective. She envied patients there who could use their hands. But she was grateful, too, that her disability had not affected her mind.

“My intellect is the same,” she said. “That makes a big difference.”

In Year One, she quickly mastered the sip-and-puff system in which she blows air into a straw-like device that guides her motorized wheelchair.

She learned to use a keyboard system with a mouthstick for homework and letters--hundreds of people from around the world wrote her--and a voice-activated electronic unit that allows her to turn on the TV, radio and appliances.

She rehearsed boarding planes at the airport.

She overcame her worries about maneuvering her wheelchair, her fears of falling off the lifts of buses and vans, her irritation at having people stare at her.

“She has a lot of talent and a lot of desire,” said her friend, Gharib. “She works at something until she gets what she wants.”

“All (disabled) people, to go on, they have to demonstrate a tremendous resiliency of the human spirit,” said Mary Lohse, her physical therapist in Iowa. “She has done that.”

Her widowed mother, who moved with her husband and four children from the Philippines to Iowa when Miya was a baby, said her daughter’s rebound has amazed her.

“Miya is moving forward faster than anybody,” she boasts. “The rest of us are following in her wake.”

But Miya has been depressed, too, early on and at the anniversary of the shooting.

On Nov. 1, 1991, she was a temporary receptionist on campus when Gang Lu, a former physics graduate student from China, went on his rampage.

Upset that his dissertation hadn’t been nominated for an award, he killed his rival, three professors and an associate university vice president. He then shot Rodolfo-Sioson--his only random victim.

The bullet knocked out four bottom teeth and ripped though her throat, damaging her spinal cord and leaving her paralyzed. She has no bladder or bowel control. She can lift her lower arms slightly, but can’t lift her hands.

Lu’s final act was to turn his .38-caliber handgun on himself.

It was over for him in 12 minutes.

It will never be over for her.

Though she doesn’t recall being angry--"I just kind of left that to my mom and other people who wanted to blame somebody"--forgiveness is another matter.

“It’s hard to say whether I would be able to forgive him or not because he’s dead, but I think I could,” said Rodolfo-Sioson, who received a letter of apology from Gang Lu’s sister.

“I can’t even imagine what it would be like to be a foreign student like him, who worked so hard . . . and feel like you’re not getting anywhere, that you’re not being recognized.”

But, she adds in a hushed voice: “He had no right to do what he did.”

Rodolfo-Sioson’s mother has a harder time rationalizing what happened to her only daughter, whose wry wit and soft features remind her of her husband, who died when Miya was 20 month old.

“I don’t know whether I will ever get over it,” she said. “It’s like somebody died in some respects.”

“If you had any expectations that life would go well as long as you behaved yourself and treated people well, those expectations are 100% gone.”

“Though we tell our children life isn’t fair,” her mother added, “we don’t internalize it until something like this happens.”

It’s a different injustice that concerns Rodolfo-Sioson--the plight of those who were caught up in El Salvador’s civil war.

“It makes you so angry you have to do something,” she said, “even if you’re not going to change the situation but just convince a few people that you’re right.”

Rodolfo-Sioson had intended to move there before the shooting and continues to lobby for Central American causes on campus. She plans to attend graduate school, focusing on Latin American or Third World studies.

In Year One, she has to learned to press ahead with her work--and not hide her frustrations.

“I think my family realized I can’t always put on a brave face and act like it’s nothing, I can handle everything,” she said. “It’s unfair to me. I did try to do that.”

She said she never forgets she was given a second lease on life, while others were not.

“All those widows, they don’t have anything of their husbands except memories and pictures,” she said. “Compared to them, I’m really, really lucky.”

But in a reflective moment, her friend, Gharib, yearns to turn back the clock.

“There are times when I wish she could get up and run one more time or dance once again,” she said. “I could go days or weeks at a time . . . then, all of a sudden, it will hit me again. This is forever for Miya.”


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