A witness to a mass murder uses her own pain to heal others.
By David Cummings
Lisa Hamp’s email signature says a lot about her current state of being.
There’s her full name, Lisa Hamp, then her story: School Shooting Survivor, Trauma Recovery Speaker, Advocate for Mental Health. The reason behind it all is one of the deadliest shooting rampages in American history. Seung-Hui Cho, a Virginia Tech student, killed 32 people on the campus on April 16, 2007.
The rampage started around 7:15 a.m. in West Ambler Johnston Residence Hall. Hamp was in her computer science class in Norris Hall around 9 a.m. when she heard two pops. “Class was almost over,” Hamp recalls. “We heard loud popping sounds coming from somewhere nearby. My classmates and I were wondering what’s going on?” At that point, two students walked to the door and stood out in the hallway to explore the sound. Hamp says everyone in the class knew something was wrong. “But a part of your mind is telling you, why would there be gunshots in this building, that’s never happened before?” Hamp says. She said the next decision was to hide— a move that may be the reason Hamp is alive today and working as a speaker and advocate for school safety for Safe and School Schools. As a survivor of the shooting, Hamp says she felt a calling to give back. That sense of purpose led her to become a motivational speaker to help others dealing with traumatic experiences. “When someone comes up to me and says, ‘I heard your talk, and because of it, I went out and sought counseling,’ that inspires me,” Hamp says.
Her husband, Eric, has seen the difference his wife makes for others.
“Lisa has helped so many people in such a short time,” he says. “I know she will help many more as she continues to share her story and lessons learned about personal and community recovery after a horrific event.”
Hamp says she conveys staying present, even when the present “sucks.” She lets her audiences know to stay with those uncomfortable feelings; they are usually telling you something important. She emphasizes staying connected with others. “When things are dark,” Hamp says, “that is the time you need deep, true connection. Figure out who you feel comfortable talking to about your traumatic experience and vulnerable feelings. It won’t be everyone, and it may not be who you expect.”
For Hamp, it’s the memory of being in Norris Hall while Cho prowled around campus. She vividly recalls standing in the classroom, forced to rely on classmates. At one point, she remembers two students in the hallway running into class after eyeing Cho, who shot at them. Hamp says everyone in the room knew they were in danger. But they stuck together. While they were thinking about what to do, Cho was going in and out of classrooms firing away. “Our door was closed, but we realized our door didn’t have a lock,” Hamp says. One student got the idea of putting up a barricade using the desks and furniture in the room. “And sure enough, it was like one desk went up, a table went up, and he was at our door,” Hamp says. “We were seconds away from having no barricade. He’s on our door, pushing and kicking and trying to get in. All of a sudden, he starts shooting through the door.”
Hamp says several students were lying on the ground while another group was in a back corner, away from the door. She says Cho kept firing and trying to get into the classroom for about 30 to 40 seconds before walking away. While he was away, the students started thinking of escaping. “We went through different scenarios,” Hamp says. “We knew he wasn’t there, and because we were near a stairway, we thought about taking down the barrier and running out of the building. There were about 10 of us, and then we started thinking about, ‘what if one of us didn’t make it.’ It turns out it was a good idea; we didn’t try it because he chained all the stairwell doors.”
Hamp says they thought about jumping out the window. But they didn’t know if more shooters were outside. As time went on, they reinforced the barricaded door with more furniture.
Eventually, the police showed up and knocked on the door. Still unsure and scared, the students didn’t allow the police in for another 30 to 40 minutes. “It had been a long enough time for us to feel somewhat secure,” Hamp says. “I was thinking there is going to be someone on the other side of the door, and he or she is either going to help me or hurt me.”
Although seeing police in uniform was a relief, Hamp says walking out of the building was terrifying. The carnage she would see in the hallway and inside classrooms: students screaming, bleeding, and lying on the ground in blood, was too much. Some were alive. Some were dead. That’s how her junior year of college ended. By the time her senior year started, Hamp was a mess. She struggled with loneliness and fear of another shooting. Hamp didn’t know how to deal with this anxiety. Over time she began to exercise and overeat. “Instead of hanging out on Friday night, I would go to the gym and work out,” she says. “I would binge eat. I would eat a lot, then go days without eating. All the while, I was able to keep this away from my family and friends.”
That was Hamp’s life cycle. She earned a degree in mathematics and got her job with the DOD. She got engaged and later married. Life was seemingly the American dream. “I was showing the world how I persevered,” Hamp says. “Then it became time for my husband and me to start a family.” But Hamp couldn’t get pregnant. “I wanted to get pregnant more than I wanted an eating disorder,” she says.
That’s when she decided to seek professional help. In weekly therapy sessions, Hamp realized how much the shooting impacted her life. She never wanted to use the shooting as a copout. Instead, Hamp took responsibility. “The more sessions I had, the counselor started to go through all the feelings I was suffocating and the feelings I had of anxiety,” she says. “Of course, all the ones I had from an eating disorder; they all came from that event.”
It took eight years, but in the summer of 2015, she began to deal with her feelings. “I was in counseling, and the floodgates opened. I’m bawling and put it all together,” she says. “It felt so good. It was like being lifted.”
She immersed herself in counseling and made sure she never missed a session. Hamp’s actions demonstrated all the signs of PTSD. The memory of the shooting never goes away. She doesn’t have flashbacks, but she’s always worried about it happening again. When other tragic shootings occur, the feelings return. Hamp knew she had to go public with her story. She wants to be a symbol of courage and help others who have experienced what she has been able to live through.
“I want to be an advocate for injured and uninjured survivors,” she says. “I think when events like school shootings happen the media focus on the shooter, the community is focused on the families who lost loved ones and the physically uninjured survivors get left out because the events are so traumatic. I want to help those people and let them know how to manage and deal with tragedy.
Remember the email signature. It’s an excellent portrayal of Hamp. It signifies a person who has gone through a lot but also has much to give. Thanks to therapy and hard work, Hamp checked off the most significant moment, too, when she gave birth to Grace Marie Hamp.
See, Lisa Hamp does have a lot to offer, including the gift of life.