Katherine "Kat" Ramirez, right, and her niece Savannah Applezoller were at the Cielo Vista Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Kat Ramirez)
By Kyle Monticone

On Aug. 3, 2019, Katherine “Kat” Ramirez was supposed to be sleeping in. Her niece, Savannah Applezoller, age 10 at the time, asked if she would go with her to sell aguas frescas with her soccer team, EP Fusion, in the front of a local Walmart. 

In the middle of a sale, Kat heard gunfire. She looked ahead and saw an armed man walking toward her. Bodies started to drop around her. She turned to her niece and a couple of her teammates, and screamed, “Run inside!”

Savannah Applezoller raising money for her soccer team, minutes before a gunman attacked the Cielo Vista Walmart. (Photo courtesy of Kat Ramirez)

Savannah and some teammates dashed inside Walmart, and Kat ran after them. Kat headed toward a hallway with windows and tripped during the chaos. When she got up, the gunman was inches away from her, separated only by a pane of glass. She froze in fear and fixated on his face. She watched as he shot people. 

An elderly man behind Kat screamed at her to get down. She got down on her knees, and crawled further inside Walmart. 

Once inside the store, Kat ran through several aisles screaming for her niece. Kat’s first instinct was to call her father instead of 911. 

“My dad was visiting a family member in the hospital when I called him. I cried into the phone and told him people were shooting at us,” Kat said. “He told me to get somewhere safe and that he loved me as he ran through the hospital.”

The sounds of gunfire echoed through Walmart. As the sounds got louder, Kat tried to run through the garden center, but the doors were closed. She ended up hiding at the end of an empty aisle. For a moment, everything went silent. She could see footsteps and shadows of people running. Then, she heard an emergency exit alarm set off by one of the customers.

She headed toward the sound and escaped through the exit. Outside Walmart, she looked for her niece. There was no trace of Savannah. She started to head back inside Walmart to find her, but she saw people escaping through another exit in the back.

She followed the people and found other members of the team. She continued to search and found Savannah. As she embraced her niece, one of the parents told them to stay put as he went back to the parking lot to grab his car. As the car came around, someone ran toward them telling them the gunman was heading back their way.

Kat pushed Savannah and more members of the team into the car. She jumped into the backseat of the car, and the car sped off. The girls looked outside of the car windows and saw the gunman come outside Walmart, and Kat told them to crouch down on the floor.

The shock of what Kat witnessed sets in

Kat’s parents picked up Savannah and her from a safe location. When she was reunited with her mom and dad, Kat cried for the first time.

She tried to hold her composure to make her niece feel safe, but when she got home, Kat was overcome with emotions and threw up in the front yard. 

“I was instantly overwhelmed and all of the fear that I had built up inside of me came flooding out,” Kat said. “I began to hyperventilate, and my mom tried to get me to breathe.”

Katherine “Kat” Ramirez

Kat continued to hyperventilate and cry. As family and friends arrived at Kat’s house to comfort her, Kat felt lost grappling through emotions.

In her living room, aerial drones showed the aftermath on TV. Kat could see her belongings, a purse and a green Yeti, left in front of Walmart, and stains of blood.

Her family tried to get Savannah to talk, but she couldn’t talk for several days. This only complicated the healing process for Kat. 

“If I felt the way I did, I can’t imagine how she felt, as a child, experiencing this,” Kat said. 

It took almost a full day before Kat was able to fall asleep. It was only because she was exhausted from crying.

In the days following, Kat followed the same routine. She would only fall asleep after her eyes were completely exhausted. Kat actively replayed every moment over and over throughout the day. 

A week prior to the shooting, Kat had celebrated her 26th birthday and had the opportunity to see Shawn Mendes in the front row of the American Airlines Center in Dallas. She had been in a good place and now she had to deal with a trauma.

Reliving the trauma and seeking help

The first week after the shooting was the hardest. Kat had to speak with two police officers and an FBI agent. Each time, she had to relive the entire shooting from start to finish. It became taxing and started to take a toll on her. 

At the end of the week, she went to the convention center to fill out paperwork to certify herself as a victim and get registered for any services available to the survivors.

At the convention center, Kat had her first opportunity to speak with a victim’s coping specialist from the Red Cross. Although hesitant to label herself a victim because she never went to the hospital, everyone there reaffirmed that she was a victim. The conversation was short, but it was a positive step in seeking and receiving the help she knew she needed.

An FBI specialist helped Kat navigate through the convention center, introduced services available to her, and recommended group therapy. 

“I have never been comfortable with talking through emotions, so a group therapy session was off the table,” Kat said. “I knew I had to seek help, but I didn’t want to share my emotions with other people.” 

She requested an individual appointment with a therapist, and the specialist set her up with Family Resiliency Services provided by Emergence Health Network. 

The following week, Kat returned to work. Kat was a substitute teacher at James P. Butler Elementary School, and she had to occupy her mind and ignore her emotions. 

“Getting back to work was the most helpful for me. It kept me moving and my mind from wandering,” Kat said. 

The principal, administration, and staff were supportive of Kat’s return to a sense of normalcy. “The principal of the school I was substituting at actually reached out to me on Aug. 3 to see if I was OK,” Kat said. “I could feel their love, and I felt safe with my work team.”

Kat got to work with 4- and 5-year-olds, and their innocence and electric activity helped to distract her. Kat saw three different therapists over three weeks.  Eventually, she questioned the helpfulness of therapy.

“I hated the idea of having to retell my story to a different therapist each week and it couldn’t continue.” She asked Emergence Health Network to get her a therapist that would commit to her. They were short-staffed, and it took another couple of weeks to hire permanent support.

Seeking therapy that works for her

As Kat found her rhythm in the months following the shooting, she immersed herself in studying for a teaching certification exam. Her therapist was impressed with her work ethic and ability to press on, but Kat didn’t want to relieve any memories.

Kat’s therapist made a suggestion as Kat began to feel comfortable – eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy. Her therapist felt her trauma was so severe that EMDR therapy could help Kat begin to process her emotions a little better. 

EMDR is a psychotherapy that does not rely on conversations or medications. Instead, EMDR focuses on rhythmic eye movement to dampen disruptive memories. Kat refused this therapy. 

“I didn’t want to relieve the situation again,” Kat said. “I knew I was going to have to talk about very distressing and specific things. The process was going to be intoxicating, stressful, and emotionally draining.”

A couple of days after saying no to the therapy, Kat saw an episode of “Grey’s Anatomy” with her sister that used the same techniques she would be exposed to. She felt a little more open with trying it and decided to give it a shot. 

Kat tried the therapy for a few weeks, but she didn’t have a good reaction. Her emotions were heightened, and her sleep was more disrupted. The last straw was the introduction of daily nightmares. 

She decided to quit therapy altogether. Every week, Emergence Health Network checked up on her, but she ignored their calls for months.

‘I needed one good thing to happen to me’

In December 2019, Kat passed her teaching certification test. She began to look for jobs, but she wasn’t having any luck. 

“I needed one good thing to happen to me,” Kat said. “Nothing was going my way, and I had to keep being busy.” She became distracted, and she knew she had to return to therapy again.

She reached out to Emergence Health Network in February, and they welcomed her back into individual and EMDR therapy. Her EMDR therapist promised they would take things slowly this time, and they worked together on extra safe zones to avoid getting overwhelmed. 

After a few sessions, her individual therapist suggested the introduction of group therapy to her routine, and Kat finally agreed. Her first meeting resulted in days of crying from stories that resonated with her own experience — and worse.

“Group therapy didn’t make me feel alone. We are all victims,” Kat said. “I was sad to hear other victim’s stories, but there was a sense of comfort.” 

In March, her world changed again. COVID-19 disrupted her therapy sessions. 

Emergence Health Network closed down its offices and transitioned to remote visits. EMDR therapy and group therapy were off the table. She went from going to therapy three times a week to once a week over the phone.

“I struggle a lot, and it comes in waves,” Kat said. “You don’t know when you’ll have a flashback or replay things. You don’t know what is going to trigger you.”

Fireworks and the 4th of July

As the 4th of July loomed, Kat knew she was going to have a hard time. “When I was inside Walmart, the gun shots sounded like fireworks,” Kat said. Anything that sounds like a firework triggers her. Even the word firework triggers her.

Two weeks before the 4th of July, the nightly fireworks began. She was constantly getting up and looking out the window or instinctively checking on her family. She would run to her sister’s room and ask, “Did you hear that?” It would continue until the middle of July.

Kat began exercising nightly on a Peloton bike in her garage to exhaust her body. She attributes her ability to fall asleep to a nightly workout regimen. She must be exhausted to sleep six hours without interruption. 

Kat regularly gets updates about the gunman and his criminal case. Every time she sees his name, her day completely flips. Recently, she saw a headline that he was going to blame mental illness for his actions. 

“I’ve had bouts of mental illness, such as anxiety and depression, my entire life,” she said. “I’ve never once wanted to kill someone. It was clearly racially motivated and premeditated. It’s almost a cop out, and he needs to own up for what he did.”

She is terrified of the grueling process of a trial. “I’ve heard it may be two to three more years before he gets sentenced, and it bothers me,” she said. “I can’t keep reliving this.” 

She also feels conflicted on his sentencing and punishment. “There are days where I feel so angry. I feel so angry,” she said, crying. “Part of me wants him to die, and then part of me questions, who am I to decide who gets to live and who gets to die? What does that say about me? I’m just so angry.”

The death of Coach Memo

The April death of a man wounded in the shooting, Guillermo Garcia, known as “Coach Memo,” complicated her feelings. 

Guillermo “Memo” Garcia and his wife Jessica. (Photo courtesy of the Garcia family.)

“He was the hope for all of the soccer team and this community, and what his wife went through for eight months of uncertainty was cruel and unfair,” Kat said. “It’s not over as much as you thought. It’s an everyday thing. The pain. The struggle.”

The politics of gun violence, and the inability to come to a resolution, amplifies her anger. 

“We’re not trying to take guns away, we just want to prevent this from happening again,” Kat said. 

In the middle of July, Kat learned she was selected to be a second-grade teacher at James P. Butler Elementary School. This was the first positive affirmation she has had in almost a year — and it was the sign she needed. 

Days after receiving her offer to work, Kat was exercising. 

“I had a great playlist, and I was having so much fun,” she said. After she finished her workout, she broke out into tears and cried the whole night because she didn’t remember the feeling of joy or happiness. This was the turning point.

What lies ahead

Going forward, Kat wants to continue therapy appointments. She is considering increasing the frequency of her phone therapy. Kat created a blog, Only-Light.com, to document her emotions and connect with other people going through trauma. 

“Knowing that there are other people that have gone through the same thing as you, or worse, makes you feel not completely alone,” Kat said. “My family has been so supportive of me throughout this process, and they’re the reason I have been able to partially heal.” 

Katherine “Kat” Ramirez writes a blog as part of her efforts to rebuild her life after the Aug. 3, 2019, shooting.

Kat’s position on gun control has also shifted, and she joined EveryTown – a nonprofit organization that advocates for gun control and against gun violence. 

Kat reached out to former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, then a presidential candidate, in the days immediately after the shooting to discuss gun violence and how she could help out. She felt he was the one person who could help her. A member of his staff got in touch with her, and said he would call her. He never did. 

She wants to participate in more gun violence activism, but she has a hard time planning ahead because of her trauma. “When you’re in the middle of trauma, you question if things will ever be normal. Will I ever be happy again? I want to say that it will. But I also don’t know how long this is going to last or when I will feel safe wherever I go.”

Kat is excited to work as a full-time teacher. Kids bring her joy, and she’s thankful for being at a school with a supportive team. Her first full day of school is on Aug. 3, which is the anniversary of the worst day of her life. She has absolutely no clue how she will react, but she knows she will get through it. 

Kat is a survivor. It’s a label she earned but never wanted. It’s a label that she will never be able to shake.

Help and support Kat Ramirez

To support Kat’s second-grade classroom supplies, visit a GoFundMe I set up for her.

For additional resources that have helped Kat, visit her blog at Only-Light.com.

Cover photo: Katherine “Kat” Ramirez, right, and her niece Savannah Applezoller were at the Cielo Vista Walmart on Aug. 3, 2019. (Photo courtesy of Kat Ramirez)