Gilroy Community Grapples With Trauma After Mass Shooting: ‘Sometimes It’s Terror’

(L-R) Brynn Ota-Matthews, Gabriella Gaus and Dr. Brian Saavedra of St. Louise Regional Hospital spoke at an Aug. 1, 2019, press conference about their experience of the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

A woman wounded in the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting feels paranoid when she leaves her home and no longer knows who to trust. Another survivor replays the attack over and over in her mind. And people in the community who weren't at the festival — like a Vietnam veteran and an 8-year-old boy — say they’ve been affected by the violence, too, triggering fear and flashbacks to other trauma.

Like many others impacted by gun violence nationwide, some people in Gilroy are experiencing trauma in the wake of the July 28 shooting that left three people dead. These emotional scars can haunt them long after the attack, even if they weren’t physically injured, experts say.

Gabriella Gaus was grazed by bullets on her back and shoulder as she fled the scene with a friend. She was discharged from the hospital hours after the attack, and has barely left home since.

“I feel paranoid when I leave my house. I don't know who I can trust,” Gaus, 26, of Scotts Valley in Santa Cruz County, said late last week. “Someday I hope to maybe feel really positive about — have a positive outlook — but I don't know right now. It's not really there.”

When she does go out, Gaus said she notices “uncontrollable” reactions that she has, like nausea and her heart beating fast. She said she can become distressed over sudden movements, such as when a friend quickly handed her a bowl of food.

Gaus’ friend, Brynn Ota-Matthews, 23, who has a bullet lodged in her liver from the shooting, said the attack “replays all the time” for her.

“I don't have any dreams, but every time I'm awake it is always in the back there,” she said last week at a press conference at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose.

Ota-Matthews said she is happy she survived but still has moments of fear. “Sometimes it's terror. I see him walking into the festival all the time.”

Colin Diep, 8, paints at a fundraiser for survivors of the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting on on Aug. 5, 2019, in Gilroy. His mother, Eloise, said he has experienced some distress after the attack. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

‘Trauma Lives in Our Body’

Such symptoms, known as re-experiencing, are not unusual, and neither is hyperarousal, or always feeling on edge, said Dr. Chandra Ghosh Ippen, associate director of UCSF's Child Trauma Research Program.

Common, too, are reminders of trauma that can strike in everyday moments.

“In a moment of danger, like during the shooting, your brain is actually taking in more stimuli than it normally would and those stimuli are becoming associated with danger,” said Ghosh Ippen. “Your body does that to protect you, because in the future, if you were around these things and they were really connected to danger, you would be more alert.”

“Unfortunately, what that means is that later on, when you come into contact with some of these common reminders, your body goes into alarm state,” she added.

Belinda Hernandez-Arriaga, a University of San Francisco professor who helped with crisis support in the Gilroy community shortly after the shooting, said some of the people she saw were experiencing panic, high levels of anxiety, repeated nightmares and overwhelming feelings of sadness.

“Trauma lives in our body,” she said. “So not only are people having emotional feelings about what they're reliving, remembering, hearing, smelling, seeing, but they're also having this physical response.”

What’s critical for survivors is to have a safe space to talk about their experience and “release some of this from their body,” said Hernandez-Arriaga, noting that physical injuries often stand out while emotional and mental health injuries can be “hidden in silence.”

A safe space to talk is what one mom and her son sought out last week at the family assistance center in Gilroy.

Juanita Rios had called her son David Sierra, 15, who was volunteering at the festival, the moment the gunman attacked.

“I heard what sounded like a loud balloon popping,” she said. “And he said, ‘Someone is shooting.’”

David wanted his mom to stay on the phone, but she worried the gunman would hear him speaking. “He said, ‘Don’t hang up on me, keep talking to me,’” Rios said. “It was very traumatic.”

“I feel a lot of anxiety,” she added. “I can’t sleep. I sleep three hours and then I wake up.”

Gilroy Garlic Festival Shooting
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David, who will soon begin his sophomore year in high school, said he was “feeling really anxious. Most of the time I overthink about it too much and get a little bit depressed.”

“But I just kind of cheer myself up a bit. I’m trying to push through it,” he added.

One of a parent’s key roles is protecting their child, and these events disrupt that sense of protection, said Melissa Brymer, director of the terrorism & disaster program at the UCLA/Duke University National Center for Child Traumatic Stress.

“We do spend time talking to parents about why they're reacting, giving them reassurance that there's a reason for that, giving them permission to take care of themselves,” she said.

‘He’s Still on Alert Mode’

People who weren’t at the scene of an attack can also experience trauma, because they live in the area or know people who were affected, experts say.

Gilroy resident Eloise Diep said her son, 8-year-old Colin, has been scared since the shooting even though he did not attend the Garlic Festival. She said he had feared early on that the gunman might come after him or even that a second possible attacker could hurt him (authorities were initially searching for a possible second suspect in the Gilroy shooting).

Colin slept in his parents’ bed for a few days immediately after the shooting and is now doing better though he is still in “alert mode,” Diep said. “He always wants a baseball bat (in) his room ‘just in case.’ He's always thinking ‘just in case’ now.”

“This is something a little kid shouldn't even have to be thinking about,” she added. “So of course I'm worried. But I told him, ‘Don't worry, mommy and daddy are here.’ And then I told him that the police, ‘They're doing a good job.’”

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Once a place he visited regularly for play dates and martial arts classes, Colin now doesn’t want to return to Christmas Hill Park, where the Garlic Festival took place, his mom said.

“He's so little and it's hard for him to process something bad like this would happen in his neighborhood,” Diep said.

Diep said she plans to look into counseling resources that Colin’s charter school is offering. Her son returns to school next week.

Another Gilroy resident and combat veteran, Jose Delgado, 71, said the shooting triggered flashbacks to his service in the Vietnam War. Delgado said he suffers from PTSD, and after the Garlic Festival shooting, he experienced cold sweats and trouble sleeping.

“I was so hyped up about those killings,” he said. “It makes me feel unsafe. It makes me feel that evil can reach out and touch us in such a way.”

Delgado and his wife, Rita, 72, joined a painting party Monday to help raise funds for survivors of the Gilroy attack. Delgado and other attendees painted designs based on the garlic bulb, a symbol of the community.

“I released a lot by doing that painting. I felt relieved and I felt sad also that people were lost,” he said. “Every time I look at the picture, it's like a burst of release ... calmness.”

Jose Delgado, 71, paints at a fundraiser for survivors of the Gilroy Garlic Festival shooting on Aug. 5, 2019, in Gilroy. Delgado said he had flashbacks to combat in Vietnam after the attack. (Sruti Mamidanna/KQED)

Getting Back to a Sense of Safety and Normalcy

Activities like art, vigils and sharing meals, as well as places where the community can gather, are important in the aftermath of violent attacks, experts say.

"So that they can find out what resources are available and make sure that people don't feel disconnected," said UCLA's Brymer. "It's important to make sure that there's a way that connectedness can still happen."

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Brymer, who is researching the impact of 10 mass violent events nationwide, said some people can have delayed reactions. For example, some survivors of the 2012 Aurora, Colorado, movie theater shooting had only recently sought help.

Getting immediate help can help stave off more serious conditions, like anxiety disorders or post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

“We can actually work with people on how to help to recover from a (trauma) reminder. And for a lot of people, that will be enough,” she said. “That's why, even in these early days, we work with survivors to see how can we help them.”

Nonetheless, the healing will take time.

“This is not about today or this week or this month. This is going to be a long time of healing,” said USF’s Hernandez-Arriaga. “There's work that has to be done to help re-establish safety for folks — this feeling of safety and normalcy again.”

Gaus said she likely wouldn’t be able to focus on her emotional well-being until her physical wounds have healed and she is no longer in pain.

“It feels very surreal still,” she said. “Had I not had any injuries, it would be hard to know it really happened.”

KQED News' Alex Hall contributed to this report. Have questions, comments, tips for the reporter? You can reach her at mleitsinger@kqed.org

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