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EXCLUSIVE: Shot through the head, 'miracle' Aurora victim on road to recovery

Her own doctor calls her a million-to-one miracle. Rock Center's Kate Snow revisits a young musician who survived a shot to the head in the Aurora, Colo., movie theater attack in July 2012.

By Miranda Leitsinger, NBC News
AURORA, Colo. -- Petra Anderson tried to run in the parking lot away from the movie theater, but she just felt herself falling forward.

Anderson, 22, didn't realize that she’d been shot in the head, though she knew a gunman had opened fire on the theater she was in to watch the midnight premiere of “The Dark Knight Rises” on July 20. She saw the first flash from the shotgun, and later heard the shots, people running and the screams.

As she fled with the help of a friend and bystanders, who picked her up and carried her to an ambulance, one thought kept her going: She needed to stay alive to help her mom, Kim, who was in the last stages of terminal breast cancer.

“I’m thinking all these things, like OK, I hope mom is asleep because she needs to sleep. This is a terrible thing that’s happened, and she’ll find out about it, but you know, she just has to be OK so that she can go … for her treatment,” Anderson told NBC News and the network’s “Rock Center” in her first interviews after the July 20 shooting at her hometown movie theater that left 12 people dead.

Anderson, an aspiring music professor, was rushed to The Medical Center of Aurora, where a neurosurgeon determined that the path the shotgun pellet took missed the brain's many blood vessels and key sections controlling vital functions, saving her life and sparing her from severe injury.

The pellet entered the left side of her nose, broke through the front of her skull and passed through her brain before lodging in the back of her head. She also had been hit twice in the arm.

Anderson was among the dozens of moviegoers hurt in the attack, some with life-long injuries and others with minor wounds. But her case was unique, one of her doctors said just after the shooting.

“I would say this is definitely a miracle,” said Dr. Michael Rauzzino, the neurosurgeon who operated on Anderson to remove the pellet from her head.

Rauzzino said that since then, Anderson has made strong inroads though she was having problems with memory, speech and language, and organizing thoughts. She can now speak in full sentences, compared with her having difficulty to produce a few words after the shooting, and can process information better.

“When someone has that kind of injury, first you’re just grateful she’s alive and you’re grateful she can move and you’re grateful she can talk,” he said in a late October interview.

Colorado shooting survivors overwhelmed by mounting medical bills

“The brain can still work at a low level and seem relatively normal,” he added, “but you can miss a lot of the higher functions, and those seemed to have been well-preserved, and she’s worked so hard to get those back.”

That work included almost four months of physical, occupational and speech therapies. At one of her final sessions in late October, she did word puzzles -- picking out a word that did not belong in a group of ideas -- and dissected the actual versus metaphorical meaning of expressions, such as the concept of a “silver lining.”

Petra Anderson, one of the 58 people injured in the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., is undergoing a 'miraculous' recovery, said her sister, Chloe, and her mother, Kim.  While her recovery has been remarkable, the family is struggling to pay their mounting medical bills. Kate Snow's full report on how Petra Anderson's family and other Aurora survivors are struggling with their growing medical bills airs Thursday, July 26 at 10pm/9c on NBC's Rock Center with Brian Williams.

She at times struggled to come up with a word she wanted to say, and in later conversations with a reporter, asked for a question to be repeated, paused before responding or asked for people speaking in the background to lower their voices so she could concentrate.

“It’s only been a few months, and she’s really made remarkable progress, which bodes very well for her at the end of the day that she’s going to make an excellent recovery from this and hopefully get back towards normal,” Rauzzino said.

Nonetheless, she has a lot of continued tough work ahead.

“This is an extremely hard, frustrating thing,” he later added. “She just makes it look easy because she bears it so well.”

Still able to play music
Anderson was motivated to improve quickly by her desire to join her mother in Texas for her experimental cancer treatment. Her sister, Chloe, set up a fund quickly after the shooting to raise money for Kim and Petra’s care.

“I remember, really from the moment that I knew I was hurt, really wanting to fight to get better to be OK because I knew that my mom needed people around her to support her and that she needed specifically me to be there,” Anderson said. Therapists at the hospital would say, “‘Are you ready to walk around today?’ and I just felt like, no, no, I don’t feel like doing anything. But I knew that my mom needed me to be well, and so I would get up.”

Anderson had organized her mother’s treatment after they learned in May that her cancer was back. But with treatment set to begin about a week after the shooting, she couldn’t go. Instead, she decided to do her best in therapy so she could give the “biggest show and tell” ever of the progress she had made when her mother returned.

However, that journey would never be made. Anderson said she and her brother, Robert, got a call from Kim, telling them she was going to die. The pair, plus Anderson’s boyfriend, Austin Hogan, flew to Texas, where Chloe and others were caring for Kim.

All the while, Anderson struggled to find the words to say to her mom.

“I was having a lot of trouble bringing ideas into words,” she said. “I couldn’t think of what it was … what I needed to say, and even if I did think of it, I was afraid I would forget it because I was also having a huge problem with memory.”

However, she wasn’t having problems reading music or playing instruments, which she knew her mother – who had introduced her to music – was concerned that she would lose because of the shooting.

So Anderson took her violin and decided to play a Bach partita – a solo piece – for her.

“It was the language that we spoke,” she said, her voice trembling, “kind of at the same level of love and delight.”

Anderson, who played a few times in Texas for her mother with Hogan, 24, and also a musician, later found the words to tell her mother goodbye.

“I told her that I knew that she had done so much for me and that she was going to be missed so much but that it was OK for her to go,” she said through tears.

Kim Anderson died in late August. Anderson, her siblings and Hogan have continued to make their plans for the future, which so far does not figure around the criminal trial of the alleged theater shooter, James Holmes, or any of the lawsuits that have arisen in the aftermath.

Her sole interactions with people related to the shooting have been to thank the bystanders who carried her to the ambulance and to have the police collect as evidence the pellet that had lodged in her arm. The second shot to her arm was believed to have been a “through and through,” Hogan said.

“Being angry at the guy for shooting in the theater or being angry at the doctors (that her mom’s treatment didn’t work) ... that doesn’t actually accomplish anything,” Anderson said. “Not to say that I have never felt anger, I’ve definitely felt anger. I think it would be kind of inhuman to not ever feel anger after having been through so much. But that's not where I stay, and that's where I’ve decided I’m not going to stay.”

Hogan and Anderson plan to marry in March before they begin their graduate programs in music at the University of Maryland, College Park, which they were supposed to start this fall.

Anderson said that though the shooting had been a “life-changing experience,” her goals of teaching music at the university level and composing remained the same.

“I think even more so because music was the gift that my mom gave to me before I could even talk,” she said. “So I want it even more now than I did before.”