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Aurora, Colo., shooting victims face challenges beyond their injuries

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AURORA, Colo. — Three weeks ago, Farrah Soudani was a waitress at a local burger joint, trying to get more shifts so she could earn enough money to study to be a masseuse, sign up for health insurance and move out of her mother’s house.

Then the 22-year-old went to a midnight showing of “The Dark Knight Rises” with a friend and his father. Amid a shower of bullets, 12 people were killed and 58 were injured. Many of the victims had minor injuries, but at least 10 were grievously wounded and hospitalized for weeks. All face long, difficult journeys to reclaim their lives.

Soudani, whose abdomen and leg were ripped open by shrapnel, underwent five operations at the University of Colorado Hospital, where doctors removed her spleen and one of her kidneys, and used skin from her thighs to patch up her left calf. Her left lung and pancreas were damaged, and three ribs were broken.

On Thursday evening, Soudani was released from the hospital and into the reality of her forever-changed life. It includes mounting family tensions over how to pay for her medical care, where she should live and who should look after her.

For the severely injured victims and their families, the Colorado shooting poses challenges that go beyond physical pain and recovery. Some of the victims, such as Soudani, are uninsured; others worry that they won’t be able to pay their rent and other bills. A few are likely to be permanently disabled and perhaps unable to work. Many are young adults, faced with a staggering setback.

“They have to cope with finding a new normal,” said Laura Bacak, director of case management at the Medical Center of Aurora, which treated 18 of the shooting victims. “It’s particularly difficult for a young person who is just starting their life, because they have to grieve the loss of what might have been.”

Caleb Medley, 23, an aspiring comic, has been in a medically induced coma since the shooting. Medley, who doesn’t have health insurance, missed the birth of his son, according to his friends.

Petra Anderson, 22, who was recently accepted into a graduate program at the University of Maryland School of Music, was hit with four shotgun pellets, including one that was lodged in her brain, according to a Web site collecting funds for her medical care and other expenses. She is covered by her mother’s insurance, but her family knows how quickly copays and other expenses can add up because her mother is battling breast cancer.

Ashley Moser, 25, now paralyzed from the waist down, suffered a miscarriage after the shooting. She was studying to be a nurse, according to her family. Her 6-year-old daughter was killed in the attack.

For Soudani, the hospital room was a surreal refuge, a place where friends and relatives celebrated small victories, such as the young woman finishing a fast-food hamburger or getting a surprise visit from President Obama.

But outside of earshot, family members have been arguing and fretting about money. When her older brother Jordan had his appendix removed in March, the bills totaled $87,000. Most were covered by insurance. “Imagine her,” Jordan said. “She was in ICU for 10 days. She’ll have spent a total of about three weeks” in the hospital.

The half-dozen or so hospitals that treated victims say they are working with their families to cobble together funds from hospital coffers, charities, the state and other sources to help pay the bills, including copays and deductibles.

The state offers some financial assistance for the victims of violent crimes, and a local foundation has set up the Aurora Victim Relief Fund, which has collected more than $4.2 million. Several families have set up their own online campaigns, which have raised hundreds of thousands of dollars.

At the University of Colorado Hospital, where Soudani was treated, financial counselors are helping patients and their families find funding from a variety of sources, spokesman Dan Weaver said. The hospital’s foundation also has set up a “7/20 Fund” to specifically help the victims of the shooting.

Each year, Weaver said, the hospital provides more than $300 million worth of free care for patients who don’t have insurance or have limited coverage.

“It’s certainly nothing new here. It’s something we deal with all the time,” Weaver said. “We’re optimistic that these patients will be taken care of.” He declined to comment on Soudani’s bill.

But many families are still worried. Beside the cost of emergency care, there’s the cost of missing work and the prospect of lifelong health problems. Some victims might need counseling to recover from the psychological trauma.

Even before the shooting, Soudani’s life was in flux. She had recently broken up with a serious boyfriend and moved in with her mother to get back on her feet financially. Her clothes were still in boxes and bags. She had gone on some dates with a new guy, who invited her to the movies that night.

Since graduating from high school five years ago, Soudani has worked at Red Robin, a casual restaurant chain where co-workers often stick around after their shifts for a drink or two at the bar. She had a steady flow of regular customers who insisted on sitting in her section, even if her shift hadn’t started. Now vases of flowers sit on the bar in her honor. It’s unclear when or if she will return.

Her relatives say they have been careful not to talk about money in front of her. And they have agreed to try to keep her off Facebook and news Web sites, and away from reporters.

But they have battled over other issues, including who should spearhead the fundraising for her. The disputes have pitted her parents, long divorced, against each other and drawn in other relatives and friends.

Soon after the shooting, one of her mother’s friends, Victoria Albright, started an online fund that quickly grew to more than $150,000. Albright wrote on the fund’s Web site that the money would benefit Soudani and her mother, Heidi, who has been taking time off work so that she can help her daughter.

“It’s about trying to help my friend and her daughter,” Albright said in an interview.

Another family friend, Lisa Romanek, wrote on her blog about the paranormal, UFO Insider, that the money would help pay the women’s everyday living expenses such as rent, utilities, phone bills and food.

Not long after that fund was started, Soudani’s brother Jordan and cousin Marty, who runs a marketing company, set up a trust fund that would benefit only Farrah Soudani. So far, they have collected $85,000. They said they were worried that if Heidi Soudani is connected to either fund, the money could be accessed by her creditors or might be spent on things other than Farrah Soudani’s care. Heidi Soudani has been taken to court at least four times in the past decade for debt-related issues and appears to owe taxes to the state of Colorado, according to court records.

Farrah Soudani “absolutely does not need to be victimized by anyone else,” Marty Soudani said. “And she absolutely deserves a second chance in life here. If anyone does, she does.”

Soudani’s brother and cousin have asked Albright to move her funds to their trust, which she has refused to do. Instead, she is in the process of setting up a separate trust fund and filling it with the money gathered online. Albright said the trust will be in Farrah Soudani’s name, but she can share the money with anyone she wants.

“My motives are pure,” Albright said. “They don’t have to worry about anything about this money.” Albright said Heidi Soudani’s financial issues are “none of their business.” Heidi Soudani declined to comment through Albright.

Soudani’s release from the hospital Thursday, which was supposed to be a joyous day, exacerbated the family tensions. Instead of returning to her mother’s house, Soudani went to a relative’s larger home, where she has her own bedroom and bathroom and professional nursing care. That decision, which relatives say Soudani made herself, upset her mother.

“This woman is about to have a nervous breakdown,” Albright said. “You have no idea how nasty this is.”

Soudani’s location is a closely guarded secret, said Jordan Soudani, 25. After living in the fishbowl of a hospital room for three weeks, his sister craves privacy so that she can reflect on everything that has happened, he said.

“Every time someone comes in, they want to express their condolences or they want to ask a question,” he said. “She doesn’t get a break from it. I don’t think she has completely let go.”

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