By David Gambacorta
Austin Eubanks’ voice held steady as he recalled his memories of a spring morning long ago, and the moment an innocuous visit to his high school library became something different — a scene in a national tragedy that he would replay for the rest of his life.
“Just minutes later, I was playing dead underneath a table, next to a pool of blood,” Eubanks said during a TEDx talk in 2017. He was one of 21 people who survived being shot by a pair of heavily armed students at Columbine High School in 1999; 13 others died.
Doctors prescribed powerful painkillers to treat his hand and knee wounds, but he quickly discovered that the drugs were even better at smothering his emotional pain. “I was addicted,” he said, “before I even knew what was happening.”
On May 18, Eubanks, 37, was found dead in his house by his father. In a statement, Eubanks’ family said he “lost the battle with the very disease he fought so hard to help others face.”
His death served as a grim reminder of the trauma that gun violence survivors carry with them, long after they’re discharged from a hospital.
Mental-health and emotional needs are among the wide array of issues that U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans proposed studying in legislation they introduced earlier this month to create a federal Advisory Council to Support Victims of Gun Violence.
The bill was drafted in response to an Inquirer investigation last year into the crushing financial burdens that gun violence survivors and their families shoulder, forcing many to hunt for government resources to help meet their basic needs.
Post-traumatic stress and anxiety can be even more overwhelming. Earlier this year, two survivors of the 2018 Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Florida committed suicide, as did Jeremy Richman, whose 6-year-old daughter was fatally shot at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012.
Eubanks, meanwhile, sank deep into addiction, getting arrested multiple times and divorced before completing a dramatic turnaround in recent years that saw him become a motivational speaker and a chief operational officer at a Colorado drug-treatment center.
Cathy Plush, the executive director of Springs Recovery Connection in Colorado Springs, watched Eubanks speak about his demons at a 2016 rally her nonprofit hosted for several hundred people. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the place,” she said.
Eubanks’ struggle is likely familiar to many Philadelphians. About 1,400 people were shot here last year; on average, gun violence victims face an average of $46,632 in medical costs. Some, such as Jalil Frazier, who was shot and paralyzed while protecting three children during a barbershop robbery in January 2018, turned to social media to commiserate with other gun violence victims.
Stories such as Frazier’s — and Eubanks’ — will be shared at the Philadelphia Museum of Art at 5 p.m. on Wednesday during a rally, Fill the Steps Against Gun Violence, that’s been organized for a fourth year by Inquirer columnist Helen Ubiñas.