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Shooting survivor credits blood donors for helping save her life

By Meredith Forrester, Special to CNN
December 13, 2012 -- Updated 1910 GMT (0310 HKT)
Meredith Forrester donates blood for the first time since undergoing two life-saving emergency surgeries after the shooting.
Meredith Forrester donates blood for the first time since undergoing two life-saving emergency surgeries after the shooting.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Meredith Forrester was critically injured in 1999 during Atlanta's deadliest mass shooting
  • Forrester received 115 pints of blood during two emergency surgeries
  • There was a severe blood shortage just two days before the shooting
  • Forrester volunteers with the Red Cross to promote blood donations

Editor's note: In 1999, day trader Mark Barton killed nine people and injured 12 others in a pair of Atlanta office buildings and later killed himself. It was the city's deadliest mass shooting, and Meredith Forrester was one of the victims. Forrester now shares her story as a founding member of the Red Cross Southern Region's Speakers Bureau and volunteers her time as the chairman of the American Red Cross Southern Region Blood Services board of directors to raise awareness about the importance of blood donation.

(CNN) -- Suicide bombings, hurricanes, plane crashes, shootings at high schools. Unfortunately we hear about such events on television or read about them in the newspaper all too often. On July 29, 1999, I got a real reminder of the difference between news and tragedy. What started out as an ordinary day at work turned out to be anything but.

I had just graduated from college and was seven weeks into my first "real" job when Mark Barton came into my office and shot everyone in sight. You may have heard about the largest killing spree in Georgia history, the day-trading shootings in Atlanta; well I'm lucky enough to have survived them.

I was shot in the lower back with a hollow point bullet. For those of you who are unfamiliar with hollow point bullets, they are the most destructive. They enter your body and expand into a mushroom shape. One of my surgeons said the bullet was like a guided missile. It destroyed my inferior vena cava, one of the two main veins of the heart. It also hit my spine, pancreas and intestines.

I needed 115 pints of blood during the two emergency surgeries immediately after the shooting. To put that into perspective, the human body holds approximately 10 pints.

The doctors told my family that my chance of survival was one in a thousand. That may sound grim, but I would have had no chance if blood wasn't available during my emergency surgeries.

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I am now missing a disc in my lower back, have scoliosis in my upper back, have extensive scar tissue throughout my abdomen and have nerve damage in my right leg. I have progressed from a wheelchair to walking without any assistive devices. Those injuries seem minimal now, considering my doctors gave me little chance to survive.

It frightens me to think that there was a severe blood shortage just two days before the shooting. There weren't even 115 pints of blood on hand, let alone 115 pints of the type I needed. It is not uncommon to experience critical blood shortages in the middle of the summer and during the winter holidays. Schools are not in session, and people are on vacation. If Mark Barton had snapped just a couple of days earlier, I would have died.

It truly is a miracle that I am here today, and I'm certainly grateful for that. It's hard to believe that I'm even alive, let alone that I'm able to walk. Among the first of many miracle workers who made my recovery a reality was the Red Cross. As the nation's largest blood collection organization, the Red Cross made an emergency appeal during that critical shortage in 1999 and made sure that those 115 pints where there when I needed them so desperately.

As you can imagine, I would do just about anything for the Red Cross. I will be forever indebted to this organization, even though nothing was ever asked of me in return for those 115 pints of blood. I'm also thankful for the 115 anonymous donors whose blood flowed through my veins. Without their generous, selfless donations, I wouldn't be here today. I wouldn't have met my wonderful husband or given birth to our two precious little girls.

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I have made it my mission to raise awareness about the importance of blood donation and increase blood collections. I volunteer as the chairman of the American Red Cross Southern Region Blood Services board of directors and am a member of the American Red Cross Metropolitan Atlanta Chapter board of directors. I serve as SunTrust Bank Inc.'s corporate champion on the American Red Cross life board. In these roles, I commit to hosting blood drives throughout the year but most importantly during critical times in late June and December.

Although public speaking is my greatest fear, I also co-founded the Red Cross Southern Region's Speakers Bureau and tell my story to anyone who will listen in hopes that I will encourage those who have never donated to do so and to encourage those who do to do so more frequently. Most importantly, I practice what I preach by donating blood as often as I can.

The chances of something catastrophic like being shot happening to you are slim to none. While you may not need 115 pints of blood like I did, you will almost certainly need at least a pint at some point during your life and there's no substitute for it. Blood cannot be manufactured; it has to be donated.

A single pint of blood can save the lives of up to three people, and donating generally takes less than an hour and is virtually painless. So now is your chance to become a hero. It's easy. All you have to do is roll up your sleeves and give a pint a blood. You won't meet the recipient, but you'll have the satisfaction of knowing that you're saving someone's life. So please schedule an appointment to donate or just stop by the closest blood drive in your area.

To learn more about becoming a blood donor or to make a donation appointment with the American Red Cross, visit RedCrossBlood.org.

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