LITTLETON, Colo. - A shotgun blast fired in the Columbine library ripped through Kacey Ruegsegger's shoulder, obliterating bone, tissue, tendons and muscle. But Ruegsegger considers herself "blessed" to now be championing bone and tissue donations.
Ruegsegger, 22, will celebrate New Year's Day in Pasadena, Calif., on a Rose Parade float filled with people who've received bone, tissue and organ donations, which have saved their lives or allowed them to overcome debilitating injuries. Families of donors will also ride on the 2005 Donate Life Rose Parade Float.
"I can't wait to meet these other families," she said. "People who have received or others who have a family member who has given."
Ruegsegger, who received a nursing degree from Arapahoe Community College this fall, was a junior at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999 when two students took the lives of 12 students and a teacher.
The day of the shooting, Ruegsegger held her hands to her head and was plugging her ears with her thumbs to muffle the sound of gun fire. Before hitting her shoulder, the shotgun blast tore through her thumb.
Craig Scott, the brother of slain Columbine student Rachel Scott, helped Ruegsegger flee the library. Had she not got out, Ruegsegger more than likely would have bled to death.
"It destroyed her complete shoulder, there was nothing left," said Dr. Ross Wilkins, and orthopedic surgeon with The Limb Preservation Foundation.
Her wounds were so severe, doctors initially considered amputation among the options.
"We didn't know whether she was going to end up with an arm or without an arm," Wilkins said.
Ruegsegger went through several surgeries, including a four-hour operation in which five inches of her humerus was replaced with a donated cadaver bone. Donor joints and tendons were also used.
"None of this can happen without families donating tissue for transplantation," Wilkins said.
A cadaver bone was also used to repair Ruegsegger's thumb.
For the surgery to be successful, it had to be done within a narrow timeframe. Without timely donations, Ruegsegger's recovery - she now has about 40 percent mobility - would not have happened.
"They gave me a gift," Ruegsegger said of the donors.
Now, she wants to help give others who are severely injured the same chance of survival and recovery she experienced.
"To see what it has done for me, it is such a great gift," she said.
After the shooting, Ruegsegger was taken to St. Anthony Central Hospital where she was in intensive care and underwent initial life-saving surgery. The bone replacement surgery was performed at Presbyterian-St. Luke's Hospital. At both hospitals the nurses were "incredible," Ruegsegger said, and they inspired her to pursue nursing as a career.
Ruegsegger wants to work with children, perhaps in neonatal care, she said.
After the surgery, Ruegsegger went through months of physical therapy on her arm and hand while struggling with the emotional trauma of Columbine.
For the most part, Ruegsegger has psychologically healed. Still, sudden loud noises and men dressed in trench coats can trigger flash backs, she said.
She still bears physical scars from the shooting, but this too is something she takes in stride.
"I scar pretty well, so I am lucky," she said. "I take it as a symbol of my strength. They don't bother me a bit."
Once a competitive horse rider, Ruegsegger still rides and has even taken up snowboarding. She has a steady boyfriend, who she met through church, and enjoys talking to church groups about her story.
"A whole lot of good has come out of it compared to that horrible day," Ruegsegger said. "I do feel very blessed to be where I'm at."