Two weeks after surviving last year’s Las Vegas mass shooting, Dr. Shiva Ghaed decided to return to the city with her sister, who was attending a medical conference. The San Diego-based clinical psychologist assumed she would be fine, given her extensive training and years of experience treating patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety issues.
But Ghaed underestimated the immense toll of her own PTSD. Returning to Las Vegas stirred memories of the horror, in which 58 innocent people were killed and more than 700 were injured.
“At first, I exhibited no symptoms — not for those first two weeks,” Ghaed tells PEOPLE. “But when I went back for those three anxiety-provoking, profoundly-sad, extremely-triggering days, I had this moment of truth: I have to do everything I tell my patients to do.”
Ghaed returned to Las Vegas last weekend — not only to honor those killed in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history, but also as part of her ongoing recovery.
“I now have a much better and richer understanding of what my combat patients went through,” Ghaed explains. “It was a war zone, it was an ambush — we were sitting ducks. I think that I really did have a good understanding of depression and trauma before this happened, but surviving that night was humbling and it was inspiring and it really helped me live in the shoes of my patients.”
Ghaed tells PEOPLE she has been on a journey of recovery this past year, meeting and keeping in touch with others who were there for the Route 91 Harvest Festival, a country music concert at which the shooting took place. She has proactively exposed herself to stimuli from that night, like police and ambulance sirens, large crowds, and loud noises.
Ghaed also wrote a book as part of her recovery: Route 91: Healing from Mass Violence and Trauma is available as a free download on her website, Love Expands.
In the book, Ghaed provides a first-hand account of the horrifying incident, in which shooter Stephen Paddock, 64, fired on the crowd from his room on the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay casino. Ghaed began writing the book within days of returning home.
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“The event is burned into my memory, and I was one in 22,000 [in the concert crowd],” Ghaed says. “Never in our wildest dreams would we have thought this would happen. I feel lucky, because I know a lot of people who saw things that are just so gruesome … folks who were sitting next to their spouse or had their arm around a spouse who died.”
‘Recovery is Possible, So Long as You Invest in Your Recovery’
Ghaed, an avid country music fan, was at the festival as part of a “girl’s weekend” with her friends, she says. She was watching Jason Aldean‘s festival-ending set when she heard popping sounds she initially dismissed as fireworks. When Aldean fled the stage and the flood flights came up, illuminating the entire audience, she realized she was in danger. People yelled, “Get down!” She did.
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“We were huddled together on the Mandalay Bay side, in the line of fire, in the kill zone, in the 20-yard radius where 85 percent of the carnage occurred,” Ghaed explains. “Looking back, I think, ‘Why the hell did we stay put? Why didn’t we go?’ We honestly had no idea where it was coming from, because it sounded like the gunfire was coming at us at different times, from different directions and from different distances.”
Ghaed eventually took cover behind a scooter, certain she wasn’t going to make it out alive. During a lull in the gunfire, she crawled underneath a truck.
She says that PTSD is “highly treatable” and that using the tactics outlined in her free book could help others with their recoveries. “I wanted to get this out to as many people as I could, as soon as possible, because I know how PTSD develops,” Ghaed explains. “Recovery is possible, so long as you invest in your recovery.”
Ghaed says she is also part of several online groups where survivors of the shooting share their stories and thoughts. She claims most survivors are frustrated by the lack of answers about the shooter’s motive in the FBI’s final report on the massacre. They are also disturbed by their perception of how quickly the media’s focus shifted away from the victims.
“We were ghosted,” Ghaed tells PEOPLE. “We all felt invalidated by that. I mean, people are still coming out of their 12th surgery, and thousands of us are living with the invisible scars of this.”
She says there is a mental health crisis in America.
“I fear that we will continue to become desensitized to the level of violence in media and in video games and the news, and that we will accept mass violence as a way of life, as they do in other countries,” Ghaed says. “I would like to think we can do better than that, by living our lives with joy, compassion, and patience.”