Stand by me: The blessings of tragedy

Sept. 7, 2011
Julie Towers, RDH, interviews survivors who are an inspiration to her. One of her interviews is with a Coiumbine survivor who eventually became a dental hygienist herself.

by Julie Towers, RDH

Thirty-eight years ago, I began my work as a dental hygienist for our family dentist, Donald Schulze in Littleton, Colo. I remember starting out at $1.25 per hour. Little did I know at age 16, my career would become such a blessing for both me and the many people I would work with. I have met so many amazing and inspiring people along the way!

I have had the pleasure of having the Coors family as my patients, Shecky Green in Las Vegas, and a Wyoming Senator who arranged for me to meet President Ford at the White House. I also worked at one time with Jason Dahl, the heroic pilot of Flight 93 on 9/11.

Over the years, I was honored to provide talks as a life and corporate Coach to many dental employees about loving our patients, who always teach us more than we ever teach them.

I have had my own difficult life battles over the years. I am a cancer survivor, the victim of a near fatal car crash that required six surgeries to restore my face, and my mother’s death remains to this day an unsolved mystery. These trials taught me how we can all survive adversity, but only by counting on the kindness of those who stand by us through thick and thin.

These real life experiences inspired me to put together my forthcoming book, Stand by Me: The Blessings of Tragedy. In this book I share the stories of the ten people I admire most, and the exemplary lives they have lived. Their stories have lifted me up when I could not stand on my own.

All of my stories are created from interviews with those I have met throughout my long career as a dental hygienist. One chapter is an interview with my friend from Sheridan College, Judy Assmuss Lengerich, who has suffered the loss of her loving husband, Ron. Then there is my patient Michael Paul, who lost his battle with childhood cancer at the age of 17. My friend Alice suffered a severe head injury, and her guardian Linda Andre, spent her entire life in a wheelchair but still took the bus every day to complete her education, including a master’s degree.

In 2005, Emily Wyant Olander, a new hygienist came to work with us in Fort Collins, Colorado. We worked together in a large and very busy office, but she was right next door so we had time to get to know each other. Even though I am her mother’s age, we developed a deep friendship. One day we noticed that we were both from Littleton, Colo., and I realized that she had gone to Columbine High School.

As we spoke, I soon learned that she had been there on that fateful day in April 1999, when two renegade students started shooting everyone. Emily was one of those students who hid under the tables in the school library. She was a survivor of one of the worst school shootings in U.S. history.

In 2010 Emily agreed to allow me to interview her for the first chapter of my book. I had grown up in Littleton and had many connections to those who attended Columbine. I knew some of the students, the teachers, the counselors, and even had a family member in the science room on that awful day. When Emily entrusted me with her story, we both realized it was time for the whole truth to emerge. Others had not heard her side of the story yet. She had been unfairly silenced by the authorities back then. We decided at the 10-year anniversary of this tragedy to tell what really happened in the library that day.

Emily’s story is one of family, friends and faith; about how love and support can heal the broken places in our hearts.

If you would like to read my 2010 interview with Emily Wyant Olander, it is now only available as an e-book on Amazon Kindle. When my book is completed, all of my interviews will be available in both paperback and e-book format.

Editor's Note: There are two followup observations to make here. First, we recommend viewing Ms. Towers' blogs, which often follow the themes in her book, "Stand by Me." You can view them here. Secondly, Ms. Towers shared the interview of Emily Wyant with RDH eVillage. It is a riveting and sobering description of what happened at Columbine on that day, as well as a very positive presentation of how Wyant recuperated from the trauma. For example, Towers asked Wyant if she followed other students at the Colorado high school by turning to drugs and alcohol to numb the mental anguish. Wyant replied:

"I never had to rely on alcohol or drugs. I never felt like I needed to, because I had such a good support system. I have always felt that Columbine didn’t really define me as a person. It is part of who I am, and always will be. That’s just how life is. You deal with it and handle it in a positive way. That’s how you move forward and go on with the rest of your life."