After Surviving a Mass Shooting, Whitney Austin Is on a Mission to Help Others Do the Same

Five years ago, mother-of-two Whitney Austin earned a label no one wants: mass shooting survivor. A hailstorm of bullets pierced her body as she entered a Cincinnati bank, a moment that forever changed her and her life's work.

It turns out, tending to a gunshot wound is less intuitive a process than some might think. I, for one, didn’t think one would have to reach a hand inside and around the bleeding injury.

Nor could I have guessed it would take nearly the whole roll of gauze to effectively pack what appeared, on the surface of the flesh, to be a tiny (if simulated) bullet hole.

And those are the steps required before even beginning to apply any pressure to a wound. I had incorrectly assumed that was the only thing I’d have to do before first responders arrived if I found myself at the scene of a mass shooting, which, according to research by Everytown, occur an average of 20 times a year in the United States.

I learned this grim but, considering the country’s statistics around gun violence, necessary lesson at a Whitney/Strong fundraising event, taking part in one of the workshops held that day to teach first aid to gunshot victims. “There have been many instances in the mass shooting world in which people died, and they didn’t need to. If someone would have had a tourniquet or basic EMS training, their lives could have been saved,” explained Whitney Austin, the founder of the nonprofit organization. “It’s not going to prevent gun violence, but this is a way to act in an emergency.”

Having been a survivor of a mass shooting herself, somehow living through being shot 12 times, Whitney is uniquely qualified to speak so authoritatively on what to do in a mass shooting. And she takes seriously her position as a survivor of gun violence as she works to make a difference. “When the nurses and physicians told me that I was a miracle, that I survived 12 shots,” she said. “That was the moment I realized that I received a gift that nobody else gets and that I needed to pay it forward.”

The Day Whitney Austin's Life Changed

The morning of Thursday, September 6, 2018, began like any other day for Whitney Austin and her family. It had been a sunny late summer day in Louisville, Kentucky, and Whitney, a mother of two who worked as a bank executive, began her hour-and-a-half-long commute to Cincinnati.

Whitney made the trip a couple times a month to her company’s corporate headquarters there. While she usually stayed overnight, she was only planning on staying  for the day this time, and she was looking forward to seeing her young kids, 5 and 7 at the time, when she got home that evening.

On her drive, Whitney called friends to catch up between listening to a podcast about banking. She dialed into an important call just as she parked her car in the underground garage, and made her way toward the office.

Walking through Fountain Square, Whitney was extra careful crossing the street, knowing how quickly and carelessly people moved around at that time of day. 

Whitney was on a conference call for work as she went through the revolving doors, when she was hit by a barrage of bullets. 

“It was so forceful that I collapsed just in the quadrant of that revolving door, and started to think, ‘What is happening to me? What is this?’” Whitney recalled. “And I remember thinking, ‘Nobody’s close to me, so I could not have been stabbed. I have this burning sensation all throughout my body.

“‘These have to be bullets,” she continued, “and if these are bullets, then this has to be a mass shooting. This has to be a mass shooting, because this is what happens in America.’”

Understanding Gun Violence in America

I first met Whitney five years after she became a rare survivor of a mass shooting. 

We met on a hot Kentucky summer day at her home in a picturesque suburb of Louisville. She spoke gently in a slight Southern accent as she recounted the events of the day in 2018 that claimed the lives of three people, as well as the life of the shooter.

The media would call it  “the Cincinnati bank shooting,” but for Whitney, “that day” and “September 6th” was all that had to be said to know what she was referring to. 

Although four people died that day, it wasn’t a particularly well-known or widely remembered event. No one I chatted with outside of the Whitney/Strong event recalled it. Given the drumbeat of mass shootings, perhaps that’s not surprising.

That seems to be the fate of many incidents of mass violence. Everytown, a nonprofit research organization founded after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, found that there have been 279 mass shootings in the United States since 2009 

But for Whitney, that day changed everything. 

“When the nurses and physicians told me that I was a miracle, that I survived 12 shots,” she said. “That was the moment I realized that I received a gift that nobody else gets and that I needed to pay it forward.”

Today, Whitney no longer works at the Fifth Third Bank. She gave up that world shortly after the shooting, and now heads a nonprofit organization, Whitney/Strong, dedicated to curbing gun violence and supporting victims like herself. Alongside a small team of volunteers and staff, Whitney now spends her day giving firearm safety talks with at-risk youth and families, teaching first aid for mass violence scenarios and fundraising for more research into the impact of gun violence.

How Whitney Austin Survived a Mass Shooting

After being shot multiple times, Whitney attempted to run away, but discovered quickly she couldn’t. As she tried to dial 911, reaching for the phone she dropped when she was initially shot, Whitney felt the next barrage of bullets rain down on her body.

“At that point, I just thought, ‘There’s nothing else I can do. All I can do is play dead and pray and hope that something changes in favor so that I can get out of this situation,’” Whitney said. “And it was awful, I was coughing up blood, I was thinking of my family, I was saying my prayers. I really thought this is it. I’m never going to get out of this situation.”

Exactly one minute passed between the moment Whitney was initially shot and when officers reached her. But as she lay injured on the floor of the revolving door waiting to be saved, time all but stood still. 

“As soon as I saw an officer in front of me—Officer Al Staples who I now know really well— I just started shouting at him. I said, ‘I am a mother. I have a 5- and 7-year-old. I need to be their mother. You need to save me,’” Whitney said. “The most important thing was, I need to go home. I need to be a mommy. I need to still be a mommy.”

Police shot and killed the shooter moments later, putting an end to his rampage. Authorities later said the shooting lasted four minutes and 28 seconds. 

Whitney was pulled out of the revolving door by Staples and brought to safety. 

About 125 miles away, her husband Waller was working on home renovation projects.  The day began in a rush as Whitney left the house, quieted after Waller returned him from dropping off their children at school, and had settled into a steadily productive but serene morning. 

And then Waller got the call.

Waller answered the call on speakerphone. As sirens blared in the background, a man who identified himself as a Cincinnati police officer asked to speak with Mr. Austin.

“I just thought she was dead, just right there,” he recalled. “I know you aren’t supposed to be thinking about the worst scenario, but it was just a surreal situation.” 

Waller was told that his wife had been shot multiple times. “I just lose it. I lost it. I’m like, is she still conscious? Is she breathing? Is she alive? What’s going on? What is happening? Who would do this? I just don’t, I don’t get it.”

At the same time, first responders were using equipment they fortunately had on hand to try to stop Whitney’s severe bleeding. While she focused on her breathing and tried to pay attention to her heart rate, Whitney asked to be put on the phone with her husband.  

“I could hear Waller in a state of despair,” Whitney said. “As soon as I got a chance, they gave me the phone and I said, ‘I’ve been shot all over. It hurts so bad, but I’m breathing deeply. My heart is beating strongly and my brain is working fine. Get up here right now.’”

Rushing to His Wife's Side

What are the first things that should go through someone’s mind when they’re told their loved one has been shot multiple times? That’s the question that raced through Waller’s mind again and again as he sped toward Cincinnati with his mother in the passenger seat.

“It was the first time I’d ever driven past 100 miles an hour in my Tahoe,” Waller said, “I was cussing all the people in the passing lane slowing me down from getting to my wife. I’m thinking every second could be her last breath.”

As Waller drove, his mother scanned the radio for any updates about the shooting and checked the Facebook post Waller made before getting behind the wheel asking friends and families to pray for his wife’s survival.

They arrived at the University of Cincinnati hospital within an hour. 

Waller walked into Whitney’s hospital room and saw her for the first time since they said goodbye that morning. She lay in a hospital bed with tubes connecting her to machines, still soaked in blood and half asleep. Dozens of doctors, nurses and medical residents ran various assessments on her.

“I looked at her, and she was still gorgeous,” Waller said. 

Though Whitney wasn’t fully alert, the medical staff’s message in that moment came through loud and clear, and continues to stay with her today. 

“They looked at me and they said, ‘You’re a miracle. You were shot 12 times and none of those bullets hit any major organs or arteries,’” she recalled. “It was just really clear to me. I got this massive sign.”

The next 10 months were nearly as grueling as the shooting itself, Whitney said. “Every single day, I did therapy, whether it was physical therapy, occupational therapy, psychiatric therapy, it was like a full-time job with all the therapy,” she said. “On top of that, I had four different surgeries over the course of a year and a half. I had to learn how to increase my lung capacity. I mean, it goes on and on and on.”

During that time, she reflected on what she now referred to as her miracle. “What were the thousands of things that went right that led to me living? And the thousands of things that went wrong that led to others dying?”

Putting more thought into the issue of gun violence, Whitney soon came up with a plan to launch Whitney/Strong, a nonprofit organization focused on making progress in reducing gun violence by finding common ground on a very polarizing issue.

“People think that it's a lost cause, that there is no way we can ever come together because we disagree too much as gun owners and non-gun owners, Republicans and Democrats, and that is a very fatalistic view of the issue,” she said. “We can do better.”

Whitney/Strong's Work

A person suffering serious blood loss can die in less than 5 minutes, but the average response time for first responders is 7 minutes – a statistic that can mean life or death if a witness did not know the proper procedures to stop or slow blood loss. 

That was one of the many facts I and the others learned at the TEN20 Craft Brewery, where the Whitney/Strong team held their May 18 fundraiser. We also practiced packing wounds and applying tourniquets on rubber dummies as law enforcement and first responder volunteers advised us on our stance and pressure. 

Also in attendance was Whitney’s mom, Donna Stevenson. “I’m not going to stand over someone and let them die,” Donna explained. This had been the first time she learned how to respond in an emergency situation involving blood loss despite. “I [now] have some kind of skills to help them.”

Donna said Whitney was mostly cleaned up by the time she first saw her after the shooting, but she couldn’t get over the blood she spotted underneath her fingernails. “That got to me as a mom,” Donna said. “This is what happened. That really happened to her.”

Looking around at the hundreds of people at the event feeling as empowered to act as she did after the training, Donna told me, “She was meant to survive. She was meant to do this. She’s always been my head strong daughter and the bank executive and she is very capable and she will make a difference in this world.”

Attendees mingled over food and drinks as Whitney and other shooting survivors talked about what they went through, as well as the work Whitney/Strong is doing. It was at this event that the organization launched the “Save-A-Life Kit,” an enhanced first-aid kit with the specific equipment necessary to stop a major bleed or injury.

The following day, Whitney and her team spoke at the Cabbage Patch Settlement House, an organization that supports at-risk youth and their families. “What can we do right now to make sure we’re reducing violence in the communities that see it at its highest levels?” Whitney said. “Nobody's OK with our increased rates of violence that’s happening in our Black and brown communities.”

That day’s programming was very different from the events of the day prior. Parents from the community were invited to take part in a discussion about gun safety and safe storage.

“It’s a public health issue. So many people are affected by it no matter your age, your race, your income status,” said former Sergeant Quinones Corniel, who was still with the Louisville Police Department when he spoke at the event. “We’re seeing an influx of children shot because of the lack of safe gun storage inside of homes.” 

The children and young people in attendance also were invited to take part in a discussion. Whitney was joined by Terrell Williams, a volunteer with Whitney/Strong who after becoming a victim in a carjacking gone wrong began to share his story.  After talking about what they both went through, the pair fielded questions and comments from about a dozen teenagers.

Some wondered about Whitney and Terrell’s specific stories and motivation to make a difference. Others asked about the charges teenagers can face if caught with a firearm. A few rolled their eyes. At one point, a teen mentioned their classmate once showed up to school with a gun. They put it on their desk before class even began.

“I grew up in this neighborhood,” Terrell said, relating to many of the teens listening to his story that day. “I’ve seen gun violence. It’s normalized, but it shouldn’t be.”

Between speaking engagements and community events, the Whitney/Strong team also funds gun violence research. They have launched a project with the Louisville School of Public Health that examines the ecomonic impacts of gun violence, and have partnered with the Cincinnati Children’s Hospital to better understand youth suicides completed by firearm. 

“For decades, we didn’t know what caused gun violence. We didn’t know the impact of gun violence. We didn’t know what would stop gun violence,” Whitney said. “Where we can help, we will.”

Armed with evidence gathered by new research, the Whitney/Strong Foundation also works with bipartisan leaders to push forward legislation that supports stronger safe gun-handling laws.

“There are way too many people operating in silos that say, OK, well we're just gonna do what all the gun owners want or we're just gonna do what all the non gun owners want or just pick your political party,” Whitney said. “We get so distracted by these solutions that don't seem to move that it's really easy to say, this is never going to get any better when that's not true. We have much to agree upon, let's move on those things.”

Going Back to 'That Day'

“That day” sticks with Whitney every day. She’s reminded of “that day” every time she’s unable to meet the full range of motion she once was able to take for granted. The sporadic pain in her chest from the shrapnel that was never removed continues also serves as a reminder of “that day.” And she still grapples with survivor’s guilt, though “it was much more intense in the beginning,” she said. 

There are plenty of reminders outside of her body, too. Each mass shooting that occurs in the U.S. transports Whitney back to Sept. 6, 2018. 

Whitney couldn’t help but note that our meeting came not long after the mass shooting at a Tops Friendly Markets in Buffalo, New York, that took the lives of 10 Black shoppers, and the mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, that killed 19 young students and two teachers.

“As more incidents of mass violence erupt in our country, it takes me right back there,” she explained. “I learned a long time ago that for me and my healing process, it’s important to stay somewhat removed from those stories and the details of the victims, and to put my energy into something productive, which is trying to prevent gun violence.”

Her work with Whitney/Strong and through gun violence prevention initiatives has helped Whitney begin to heal. Her journey to mental and emotional wellbeing has been less than linear, but in her darkest moments, where advocacy and therapy fail, she thinks about her story of survival.

This is, for Whitney, what being the recipient of a miracle requires.

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