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The physical and emotional trauma of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting survivors

Keith Srakocic

Prosecutors in the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting trial, who began presenting their case at the end of May, called their last witness on Wednesday.

The prosecutors had already convinced the jury to convict Robert Bowers of killing 11 Jewish worshipers in June and last week again convinced the jury to determine he was eligible for the death penalty.

During the long course of the trial, the jury has been able to hear from some of the victims and their family members multiple times.

Dan Leger, the last witness called by prosecutors, was on the stand for a second time. He joked on the stand about his diminutive size of 145 pounds, compared to Officer Timothy Matson, who weighs 300 pounds and had entered the Tree of Life synagogue on October 27, 2018, in order to rescue people like him.

Leger set it as a goal in the hospital during his recovery to hobble down the hallway to see Matson. Leger said he didn’t quite meet his goal but did manage to briefly see Matson before returning to his hospital room in what he called “exquisite” pain.

Slideshow: Prosecutors and loved ones shared details of victims' lives and the impact of their losses in testimony this week.

One of Matson’s defining characteristics in the trial has been the sheer severity of his injuries set against his giant size and tough attitude.

The jury already knew about the seven bullet holes in his body and the 25 surgeries he’d undergone. Matson told them he’s had to train himself to walk again with a leg he can’t feel anymore — but he can’t run anymore because his mind can’t tell his numb leg to move fast enough.

Prosecutors showed a picture of a bullet hole in Matson’s head that had only just begun to heal while he was in the hospital, as well as another picture of an open wound in Matson’s arm, a skin graft barely concealing the exposed flesh. Matson had several wounds where the raw flesh was exposed because the swelling was so severe it was cutting off the circulation to his limbs.

Matson said his pain was a 15 or 20 on a scale of one to 10.

All of this testimony underscored what the jury already had heard from Matson twice before. What was new on Wednesday was Matson’s sharing of what the incident has done to him mentally: he told the jury he had to attend “happy school,” or therapy, two days a week after he began considering suicide.

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A nurse becomes patient

The jury had already heard Leger testify earlier in the trial about his experience lying on a stairway for 45 minutes unable to move, prepared for his life to end.

He’s a nurse who ran toward the gunfire to help and then was shot, as the jury already knew. On Wednesday the jury heard Leger describe his own injuries in the kind of specific detail only a licensed medical expert could give.

Leger’s doctor had to grab his aorta and squeeze it closed because it was spewing so much blood everywhere. “That's pretty dramatic to have to do such a thing,” Leger said.

Leger said he was happy his doctors were able to cut off a piece of his intestine and attach a colostomy bag to the working part of his intestines. He would have to defecate into a bag for the rest of his life — but modern medicine had saved him.

During his recovery, Leger became frustrated and then depressed that doctors couldn’t seem to find all of the tiny holes in his body the bullet shrapnel had left behind. The doctors would drain one part of the body of its excess fluids, only to find pus, and urine would build up in another part of his body.

He spent six weeks in the hospital but then had to return a couple of days after being discharged because all of the excess fluid in his body had begun draining into his groin, creating an abscess through his skin where the liquid could drain out.

Leger continued to get new, sharp pains that his doctors couldn’t explain. Doctors couldn’t use an MRI to look inside him because there were too many pieces of metal shrapnel lodged inside his body.

“It really looks like the night sky; like a snowstorm,” Leger said, pointing out pieces of shrapnel from an X-ray.

“They can't be removed because they are integral to my flesh," he said. "If they tried to take them out, it would cause more damage than would be reasonable.”

Leger can walk again, though sometimes with a cane, but he doesn’t feel good about it.

Showering is difficult. Leger is not sure what body he has ended up in.

“I feel like somebody took it over, invaded it and gave me a different one,” he said. “It doesn't feel like my body.”

Leger’s career as a hospital chaplain is over now, in part because of how difficult it was to just move around, he said. But also, he said he couldn’t stop projecting his own pain onto his patients, and his patients now recognized him as “that guy who had been shot.”

It’s not just that his body has been immutably disfigured; his whole life has, he said.

“I have often thought it would have been better if I had died that day,” Leger said. “It would relieve my family of the burden of the person even I have a hard time getting along with sometimes in this new configuration.”

Passing trauma

The defense, meanwhile, called its first witness in an attempt to explain how Robert Bowers could have passed on so much trauma to the synagogue shooting victims.

Part of the reason is Bowers himself was the recipient of years of chronic trauma as a young child, according to Dr. Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist, who undertook a “psycho-social history of Bowers’ life,” starting with his many relatives.

The jury had already heard testimony in other parts of the trial about the violence and suicide in Bowers' home as a child. But Porterfield traced that trauma back through several generations and began to lay it out in careful, chronological order.

Bowers’ grandmother, Patricia, for example, was sent to an orphanage along with her other eight siblings for more than a decade. That’s because Patricia’s father — Bowers’ great-grandfather — spent more than 11 years locked in a psychiatric ward.

Patricia ended up suffering from severe alcoholism during Bowers’ infancy, during which time she would often fall and injure herself, crash her car, or just not be able to get up from the couch. Most of Patricia’s eight siblings suffered from addiction or neurological disorders, and one died of suicide.

But despite her problems, Patricia was the one who was worried about Bowers’ home life with his mother. She drove to Florida and brought him back to Pittsburgh because she was so worried.

“So now, since we know you are capable of making such terrible mistakes, I feel it is only my duty as a grandmother to tell you that you must be very careful about the kind of company you keep and have around,” Patricia wrote to Bowers’ mother in a letter. “You should know by now all men are alike and are out for only one thing.”

Bowers’ mother, Barbara, married two men in her early 20s, each of whom would later be arrested for rape or child molestation, Porterfield said.

Barbara was an unhappy child from the beginning, her sister told Porterfield.

Barbara couldn’t hold down a job and felt overwhelmed as a parent. She threatened to throw Bowers out a window at one point when his dad had turned on the gas stove and threatened to set Bowers on fire.

It was shocking that child youth services didn’t follow up more, Porterfield said.

"I was a terrible mother. I could not care for him,” Porterfield said Barbara told her in an interview.

Bowers took frequent trips to the hospital, including for ingesting medicine and detergent lying around. Barbara cut herself in front of Bowers when he was an infant and told him she wished he had never been born.

The list of Bowers’ family members who suffered trauma was long — Porterfield presented an extended family tree — and that had an impact on Bowers, both directly because he had to witness their actions, but also indirectly because he inherited their genetic makeup, Porterfield said.

By the time Bowers was 5 years old, Porterfield said, he had suffered chronic trauma in seven of the 10 ways that cause the most harm to children: emotional and physical abuse, divorce, mental illness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and parental death. According to one prominent study, Porterfield said, this made him 30 times more likely to attempt suicide as an adult and 51 times more likely to attempt suicide as an adolescent.

“We know people can recover from a lot of things, but when you have a dose in your childhood of extraordinarily serious, pervasive traumatic stress,” Porterfield said. “It’s very difficult for that child to develop normally.”

Oliver Morrison is a general assignment reporter at WESA. He previously covered education, environment and health for PublicSource in Pittsburgh and, before that, breaking news and weekend features for the Wichita Eagle in Kansas.