For Shiva Ghaed the outdoor Route 91 Harvest country music festival one year ago was to be the capstone of a fun girlfriends’ weekend in Las Vegas. But it became a struggle for survival when automatic weapons fire on the crowd began killing concert goers.
In the days after the shooting, Ghaed, a clinical psychologist whose work includes treating veterans with PTSD, realized there were few services available for survivors dealing with the trauma of a mass shooting. So, one week after the shooting, she began leading a support group for survivors.
That support group has met most Mondays since the mass shooting. Its last meeting will be tonight, on the one year anniversary.
A beautiful evening
At first, the evening of the concert was unfolding flawlessly. “It was a beautiful night. It was sort of the perfect temperature: not too hot, not too hot,” she recalls. “We were all standing around just socializing.”
Then that strange and jarring rapid-fire popping sound began, while she and her friends were enjoying country star Jason Aldean.
Ghaed didn’t think much of the sounds, at first. Someone nearby had been shooting off small confetti poppers. Plus the loud music, lights and glitter.
“I mean it’s Vegas, right? So, you know, I mean we didn’t know maybe the show had fireworks or maybe there were fireworks nearby,” she says. “Nobody knew what was going on.”
But the clinical psychologist remembers the moment agitated confusion turned to terror.
“When the lights went off on the stage that’s when I knew something was not right. And then the floodlights went on,” she says, “I thought something had just gone very wrong.”
The weekend road trip to celebrate a friend’s birthday became something else entirely. A reclusive, high-stakes gambler was shooting with semi-automatic rifles outfitted to fire faster from two windows in a high-story suite at the nearby Mandalay Bay resort and casino.
Sounds seemed to echo everywhere. “The gunshot sounds kept changing. Some sounded very far away, some sounded like they were coming over the fence and in different directions.”
Ghaed first huddled under a plastic table that moments earlier had been a bar near the front of the stage.
She then moved in between some plastic recycling cans, fully aware they offered only an illusion of protection from the on-going spray of gunfire.
She made a dash to some motorized scooters parked near the stage.
“I literally sat there, you know, crouched behind this this wheelchair scooter thinking over and over again please, ‘please don’t hit me, please, please just don’t hit anything vital.'” She recalls just “hoping and praying that the back of that wheelchair would maybe protect my brain and my jugular veins. I know it sounds very scientific, but believe it or not sometimes you have those kinds of thoughts in the middle of a near death experience.”
Four people near Ghaed were killed.
The group she was with finally made a run for it, stepping over pools of blood and carnage.
“We were we were in the kill zone where over 85 percent of the carnage occurred that night.”
In all 58 people were killed, plus the gunman who killed himself. Hundreds more were wounded physically and mentally.
It was the deadliest mass shooting in modern American history. Police never found a motive.
When Ghaed finally felt safe in a nearby hotel’s conference room, she remembers looking down at her Fitbit.
“And it was 12:30. So two and a half hours of running and hiding, and running and hiding.”
Choosing to lead
Not long after the shooting Ghaed says she realized she had a decision to make. “I could try to heal in private — or I could lead by example.”
She chose the latter.
The licensed clinical psychologist work includes extensive experience with combat veterans and military personnel, some with PTSD, in the San Diego area.
“I understand the pain and also the very insidious nature of trauma,” she says, “the other ways that trauma can manifest into mood disorders and long-term anxiety disorders.”
Back home a few days later she realized there just wasn’t much out there to help people process that night’s horrors. “I noticed that there just was nothing in the news about resources, at least in the San Diego area,” she says.
“You know I had a couple of sleepless nights probably not unlike anybody else. And I just wakened in a panic thinking about how many people would have invisible wounds.”
Dr. Ghaed called up the manager of local country music bar and dance hall, In Cahoots, in San Diego’s Mission Valley area. She was a regular there and knew it was closed on Mondays. Could she offer free counseling meetings there on Mondays?
The owner and manager said yes.
She put out the word out through local TV and social media.
Just seven days after the shooting, she held her first support group — 42 Las Vegas shooting survivors showed up.
“I knew that you have to talk about it. You have to. You have to think about it. You have to face it. You have to feel your feelings about it.”
Just about every Monday since the shooting, between 40 and 60 survivors come to the dance hall to meet and talk.
“I wanted to intervene quickly and teach people everything I knew about trauma about PTSD about depression about anxiety about how this develops barriers to recovery,” she explains.
They meet together before splitting up into small groups of five or six.
Ghaed helps guide the sessions and drops in on the small group discussions. The small groups were where, she says, people really open up: Trouble sleeping. Anxiety. Stress. People agitated by loud noises.
Some sessions have titles such as “Why Avoidance Makes It Worse” and “Tips on Managing Nightmares.”
She had survivors coming who couldn’t find a psychiatrist or psychologist in their own town, and are driving up to an hour or more to come to her Monday group.
The groups were supposed to be two hours. They often ended up meeting for three hours — sometimes longer.
Ghaed soon realized she had lots of blank spots in her own memory.
“The first few months were really rough for me. I’m not going to lie.”
The healer now needed her own healing
When she began the group meetings, Ghaed didn’t fully realize, she says, how deep her own invisible wounds were.
Ghaed now knew, up close and personally, more of what the service men and women she’d treated as a PTSD counselor had gone through.
A year on, Dr. Ghaed says she realizes she needed the group as much as they needed her.
“I guess I thought that my expertise and experience in treating trauma for all of these years would somehow protect me or immunize me from the effects of living through a near death experience. And in fact it didn’t, ya know?,” Ghaed says.
They’d often end with circular huddle. “All of us sort of came in together and just gave thanks and gratitude for having each other and being able to heal together,” she says. The gatherings she says underscore the importance of social networks to help people begin to bounce back.
“You know I really strongly believe that we recover and we heal from trauma.”
The healing won’t end for her or scores of other survivors on this anniversary.
But the weekly survivor meetings at the dance bar will.
There will be a final gathering, a potluck dinner and remembrance tonight.
It won’t be a memorial or a celebration, really, Ghaed says, but something in between.