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511 || The Day a Bullet Saved Her Life

We place way too much faith in tomorrow. We pass up opportunities today because we’re too busy, and we trust there will be other chances tomorrow. But what if today is all there is?

For three of Stephanie Monticciolo’s former university colleagues, tomorrow will never come. Their lives suddenly ended on February 12, 2010, the day Dr. Amy Bishop brought her husband’s 9 mm pistol to work and shot Drs. Maria Ragland Davis, Gopi Podila and Adriel Johnson to death.

It was also the day Bishop shot Stephanie in the head and wounded two others before the gun jammed. But Stephanie says it was the day Bishop’s bullet saved her life.

Paying Attention

She doesn’t mind if people know she is 70 years old. Stephanie sees every day as another opportunity to do things differently, to see and hear God more clearly, to love people better than she ever thought possible before. She plans to live to be at least 85.

On the day her old life ended and her new life began, Stephanie had just finished wrapping up some things at her job as the Biology department staff assistant at the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama. She had her coat on and was heading out the door when the department chairman, Dr. Podila, asked her to stay and attend a meeting to take notes for him.

Stephanie says God meant for her to stay and be at that meeting: “I was supposed to be shot so that I could live a new life,” she explains.

Since she was a child, Stephanie had always followed God’s direction, and she says that day was no different. She entered the conference room and made her way to a nearby chair but felt God’s not-so-gentle nudging. He was speaking clearly, and Stephanie was listening.

“God told me where to sit,” she remembers. “He told me not to sit in that chair, but to pull up a chair and sit next to Dr. Podila. So I did. I didn’t hesitate. It was that clear.”

Then Dr. Amy Bishop started shooting.

One Bullet’s Destruction

Dr. Podila was hit first. Again, Stephanie felt His instructions to her.

“I got a clear message from God to put my right hand over the left side of my head,” she recalls.

With her right arm stretched awkwardly over the top of her head, she heard the first shot hit Dr. Podila, and he landed at her feet. Then Bishop shot her. That second bullet destroyed Stephanie’s knuckle as it passed through her finger, ricocheted through her eye socket, redirected through her sinus cavity and exited out the right side of her cheek.

Stephanie could not see out of her left eye, and blood poured down her face.

The bullet continued its journey, traveling out her arm and barely missing the professor who had jumped behind her chair. Stephanie is emphatic as she explains her conviction that God meant for the bullets to miss him.

“God intended for him to live because he was supposed to be there with the students the next day, to comfort them. He is an excellent teacher, and I know God wanted him to continue teaching.”

Blinded But Still Able to See

Stephanie has no earthly explanation for what she saw next, but she has an idea.

“I believe your soul sees things, even if you’re not physically aware,” she says. “My mind may have been clouded. I was blind in one eye, and the other one was covered in blood, but I could still see! I was able to see everything that was going on in the room. I saw Dr. Maria Davis get shot and Dr. Adriel Johnson. And Dr. Luis Cruz-Vera was shot in the stomach. Dr. Podila died at my feet. I heard his last breaths. I saw all of it so clearly. God allowed me to see all of it, and I still don’t know why, for sure.”

Although she did not know it at time, Bishop’s bullets also found another one of her colleagues. Dr. Joseph Leahy, professor of microbiology, had been sitting at the other side of the room, so Stephanie never saw the bullet that plowed through his head. It was only later, when she ran into him at the same gym where she had been going for rehabilitation, that she even realized how traumatic his injuries were.

“I saw him there, and I went into an absolute panic attack … (at) the fact that he was also shot in the head. … His scalp was swollen, and he had one eye closed — sewn together,” she remembers.

By the time she reached the hospital, she had lost more than half of her body’s blood supply and had to be resuscitated. Later she developed a pulmonary embolism. But as she began her long recovery, Stephanie and her family learned the truth about how close to death she had really been, and it was more than the catastrophic injuries she received in that conference room.

Stephanie had already been suffering from the effects of congestive heart failure by the time that bullet barreled through her head. Her feet and body were profoundly swollen, and she had been having difficulty breathing and walking. But she was committed to her duties and didn’t want to let anything slow her down. She had students to take care of and worked many long hours with little regard for her declining health. Stephanie was also diabetic and had a thyroid condition. She says she was unlikely to have lived much longer.

As doctors worked to repair the injuries Bishop’s bullet caused, they also gave Stephanie medications to drain all that fluid from her body. She lost between 30 and 40 pounds.

Today her thyroid is normal, and her diabetes has gone away. Her husband, Dominic, says she’s like a lizard because even the bone and tendons in her shattered knuckle grew back. Stephanie says God truly used the shooting to save her physical life, but it also saved her spiritual life.

It Changed Everything

Even before she was shot, Stephanie often found herself in circumstances that allowed God to use her, and she says she always felt some level of gratefulness for those opportunities, but the shooting changed everything.

She explains, “Sometimes God sends people to me who share their problems and their pain with me, and God uses me to open my mouth and comfort them with His voice. I always loved people before, but now my heart is wide open to everyone. Now I’m more sensitive to how He uses me, and I am willing to be used in whatever way He chooses.”

Stephanie isn’t angry Amy Bishop shot her. In fact, she says she actually feels grateful God used Bishop to alert her to how serious her health problems actually were. She knows God is watching out for her — that He always has been, even when she wasn’t paying attention.

“I always knew it, but I don’t think I really, truly realized how much until I got shot. Throughout our lives, we may say we know God is there, but then we go on doing whatever we think we should do to enjoy life. But the truth is, if we seek God’s guidance, talk to Him every step of the way, that’s a true life. I’m living a true life now,” she says.

Today she can see how God guides every aspect of her life. She finds herself directed to just the right medical doctors, to the support system she needs, even to the people He brings into her life.

“God is always talking to His people. I just needed to open my heart more and listen to hear Him better,” Stephanie explains.

Getting shot in the head wasn’t a horrible thing; Stephanie believes without a doubt it was what had to happen to bring her to where she is today. If it took a shooting to show her the wonder of a life lived fully dependent on God, she would go through all of it again.

Stephanie says she is living healthier in what she calls her new lifetime so she can be a better witness for God, adding that she also enjoys a richer spiritual health now.

“Oh, the love you feel inside when you belong to God! Your heart just bursts open because of it. My being saved from death by God brought me to THIS life. I am learning to talk to people about Him and His love for them every chance I get.”

What Another Intended for Evil

To be sure, the shooting on that cold February day was a heartbreaking thing, one that drew our attention away from this world and hopefully placed it squarely on the next, even if only briefly. Tragedies are a certainty, but so is an eternity.

You may wonder how Stephanie can still believe in God, who would let such a horrible thing happen to her. But she has an answer for that too.

“God didn’t let this happen to just me. He let it happen to all of us — to the others who were also shot, to Amy’s family, to everyone who followed the news. Everything that happens to you happens so you can learn lessons that bring you back to Him. … This world is a blessing, and I look forward to getting closer to God so I can reflect His love to anyone He puts in my life.”

One February day in 2010, a woman brought her husband’s pistol into a full conference room and used it to kill three of her colleagues. They were here, and then they were just not. From her story, we can see the good in why God chose to save Stephanie Monticciolo. But why did He allow three other lives to end? Where is the good in that? Do we know for certain where each one of those precious souls went after they breathed their last?

Seeing This World Differently

From our limited, human perspective, we can’t begin to comprehend everything that happens in this world. We can only begin to absorb a tragedy’s significance by approaching it from another perspective, one that’s eternal. God instills meaning into every moment, every single event, even if we don’t yet understand.

There is nothing any of us can do about yesterday, but Stephanie says knowing tomorrow doesn’t come for everyone should greatly impact how we handle today. Are we doing all we can now to share the Gospel with the lost, or are we telling ourselves tomorrow will be a better time for that? Are we focusing on what matters, or are we bogged down in the minutiae of this world? Will something in tomorrow’s headlines make us long for one more chance at today?

Had Stephanie died that day, she would have never met her new love, her grandson. She would not have been able to pour love into his little life or positively impact him as he grows to become the man of God she prays he’ll be some day. But Stephanie doesn’t spend any time thinking about what might have happened. Instead, she lives each day filled with a desire to have God use her for His glory, whatever that might be.

And she understands the significance of living in today. Because she knows all too well that tomorrow might not come.

Editor’s Note: We were greatly saddened to learn of Dr. Joseph Leahy’s passing in October 2017 from a condition unrelated to the shooting. Stephanie wants all of us to know what a wonderful person he was, a truly gifted professor dedicated to his students. She knows the UAH community greatly misses him, as does she.

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