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A victor, not a victim

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Editor’s Note: This article originally published in February 2013. Dates and ages have remained unchanged from the original piece.

Most of Patrick Ireland’s clients got to know him long before they set foot in the financial advisor’s Broomfield, Colo., office.

As “The Boy in the Window” at the Columbine High School massacre in 1999, Ireland was the bleeding student pulled by SWAT team officers from a second-story library window. The scene played out on live television, shocking audiences around the world, and has lived on in AP photos and B-roll footage in the years since, reprinted and replayed after similar incidents — Virginia Tech, Tucson, Newtown. The iconic image of Ireland has become a symbol of the horrors of mass shootings, of victimhood itself.

It’s telling, then, that most of Patrick Ireland’s clients don’t recognize him. It’s not only because Ireland is no longer a teenager. And it’s not just because extensive rehab has left the scars from his injuries almost undetectable. It’s also because, these days, Ireland — clad in a pinstripe suit, surrounded by family pictures in his large office with a view — looks the opposite of a victim. In fact, he seems the epitome of success.

At just 31, Ireland is the managing director of Northwestern Mutual’s Broomfield branch, an office he was selected to help build from scratch. He’s a frequent public speaker at business conferences, including MDRT’s 2010 Main Platform. And he’s a husband and proud father of a three year old.

Video: Q&A with Patrick Ireland

“At every level, Pat’s kind of found a way to rise and be looked upon as a leader,” says Scott Theodore, the managing partner with Northwestern Mutual’s Denver branch who hired Ireland as an intern. “He kind of took this life experience to say, ‘I’m not going to let evil win.’ Instead of having people feel sorry for him, he’s determined to go on and help others.”

Ireland puts it more succinctly. “At the end of the day,” he says, “we make our own destiny.”

One “surreal” day

When his day started on April 20, 1999, Ireland was a 17-year-old high school junior with a 4.0 GPA and a passion for sports. He had a fortunate class schedule that semester, one that gave him a free period right before his assigned lunch, so he often had extra time mid-day to study and finish homework in the library.

And that’s where Ireland was — with four friends, finishing statistics homework from the night before —a little after 11 a.m., when classmates Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris opened fire on students and teachers at the Littleton, Colo., high school. “It was kind of surreal,” Ireland says. “At first, we weren’t sure what was going on. There were just pops and cracks.”

A teacher ran in, yelling for the students to hide, and Ireland and his friends ducked under a table. The gunmen entered a few minutes later.

“They were yelling things like, ‘This is for all the B.S. you put us through for the last four years,’” Ireland says. They asked for everyone in white hats — commonly worn by the school’s “jocks” — to stand up. No one did.

Ireland and his friends stayed under the table as Klebold and Harris shot out the library windows and fired at police and fleeing students outside. Klebold then fired toward Ireland and his friends. One, Makai Hall, was hit in the knee.

Ireland leaned out from underneath the table to apply pressure to Hall’s wound, exposing himself in the process. Klebold, just 15 feet away with a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun, noticed. Shot twice in the head and once in the right foot, Ireland lost consciousness.

He missed much of what happened next in the library — where 10 people were killed, 12 were wounded and Klebold and Harris later committed suicide. When he eventually came to, most of the surviving students and teachers had fled.

Ireland didn’t know what was going on, only that he needed to get help. His right side paralyzed from his injuries, he used his functioning left leg to start pushing himself toward one of the broken second-story windows.

“The front door just seemed too far away, and so was the emergency exit,” Ireland says. “I didn’t know if the gunmen were still around. I didn’t know whether they’d come back. But I just knew I had to get out of there.”

It took Ireland three hours to make it across the room. He had to push his way around chairs and the dead bodies of classmates. He lost consciousness several times. More than once, he thought about just lying down and waiting for someone to find him. But, “at each of those moments, you realize all of the people you’d be leaving behind if you just let go,” he says. When he finally made it to the window, Ireland says he still remembers feeling a warm spring breeze coming toward him.

Rescuers soon spotted Ireland, and as the world watched, a SWAT team commandeered an armored truck, climbed on its roof and pulled the bleeding boy outside.

He was loaded in an ambulance bound for St. Anthony’s Central Hospital, which was at least a half hour away, in good traffic. The driver got him there in 17 minutes.

Once in surgery, doctors discovered one of Klebold’s shots had penetrated the left hemisphere of Ireland’s brain, causing his right-sided paralysis and severing his brain’s language center. Ireland also had a bullet between his skull and his scalp, and his right foot was shattered.

Extensive surgery helped Ireland pull through alive. And as his day ended on April 20, 1999, he was still a 17-year-old junior with a 4.0 GPA and a passion for sports — but one who now had a long, difficult road to recovery ahead of him.

Next: One day at a time

One day at a time

Ireland was sent to Craig Hospital for inpatient rehab and stayed for months, not gaining his freedom again until, ironically, Fourth of July. He continued to work as an outpatient until that November, for a total of seven months of grueling therapy designed to re-teach him how to walk, talk, read and write.

The physical therapy was easiest, Ireland says, thanks to his years of athletics. “I was used to hard work,” he says. “I grew up playing sports, with practices where you run for three hours straight.”

The mental work, however, was another story. Friends and family would ask him questions, and Ireland would answer them — except what came out of his mouth often made no sense, like a recitation of something that had come over the hospital PA system earlier. Rehab meant going back to the frustrating work of tracing letters and reciting the alphabet. “It was like elementary school again,” Ireland says.

Despite the setbacks, Ireland returned to Columbine in time for his senior year and not only graduated on time, but was also valedictorian of his class. From there, he went on to college at Colorado State University, where he studied business finance and graduated magna cum laude. He even gave the commencement address at his business school graduation.

Through all of the obstacles and achievements, Ireland says he learned invaluable lessons — about perseverance, hard work and just living. He’s come to believe that, “you have the ability to live your life on a daily basis, to wake up and choose whether to be a victor or a victim,” he says. “Those of us who choose to be victors can achieve the goals we set out for ourselves.”

It’s a message he’s gone on to convey to strangers, through public speaking and media appearances, as well as to his own family. Touched by her brother’s recovery, Ireland’s sister Maggie went on to study physical therapy and now helps rehabilitate patients at Craig Hospital.

So it was no surprise, then, that when it came time to choose a career, Ireland looked for one that would allow him to give back even more — and that’s how, while looking for an internship at a college job fair, he stumbled upon Northwestern Mutual. The company’s local recruiter sold him on a job helping clients achieve their financial goals; the job itself sold Ireland on a career with Northwestern Mutual.

“I didn’t really know what I wanted to do then,” he says. “I just knew I needed an internship and that I wanted to have a good experience. But as soon as I got a taste of what this career is like, I really enjoyed it. The people, the culture, the relationships — that’s what really drew me back to be a full-time financial representative.”

Next: Today


After his college graduation in 2004, Ireland worked in Northwestern Mutual’s south Denver office until 2009, when he was tapped to lead the company’s new satellite office in Broomfield, a suburb just north of Denver. Theodore, the managing partner with Northwestern Mutual’s Denver branch, said the choice was an obvious one.

“He’s a good role model, both as a representative and a citizen,” Theodore says. “He’s resilient, very determined, caring and humble. I think, through his life experiences, he’s just shown that he rises to every challenge.”

Theodore points to the fact that, when he and his team interviewed Ireland for the intern position, he didn’t tell them right away that he was a Columbine survivor.

“It came out during the interview process,” Theodore says. “You just know when you shake Patrick’s hand that he shakes a little differently. He has a little bit of a limp, so you know there’s something there. But the thing about Patrick is that he doesn’t lead with that. He didn’t really let the Columbine shootings define him. He was more determined to show that they wouldn’t define him.”

Indeed, in Ireland’s Broomfield office, it’s hard to find any trace of Columbine. There are no pictures of him with the celebrities — Shania Twain, Aerosmith — who visited his hospital bed. No walls of newspaper clippings. His most noticeable decorations are family pictures. A framed snapshot commemorating his first Father’s Day stands in a prominent position on his desk.

It’s not that Ireland tries to hide his history with Columbine. Clients sometimes recognize him — though it’s happening less and less as time passes, he says — and he has no qualms about telling them about his experience. “I’m more than happy to share my story with them,” he says. “I’m learning their story and about them, so it helps if they know about me. I think it adds a level of depth to the relationship.”

In fact, one of Ireland’s clients happens to be the ambulance driver that sped him to the hospital back in 1999. “That team helped save my life, and in the business I’m in now, I’m able to help his family out,” Ireland says.

But life goes on, and Ireland has lots of other things on his mind these days. In Broomfield, he has more than 500 clients to take care of and oversees 16 financial representatives as well as about a dozen interns at any given time. “You have to learn to juggle all the new things and all the directions you’re being tugged,” Ireland says of running an office at such a young age. “It’s about trying to balance work, and your clients and your personal life.”

Luke Sturges, a wealth management advisor in the Broomfield office and a close friend who has climbed the Northwestern Mutual ladder with Ireland over the years, says Ireland’s determination is constantly present.

“The ups and down and daily challenges of this career, he’s always stayed focused on the end game,” he says. Sturges thinks some of that comes from Ireland’s experience with Columbine, but he says it’s also because “we both want to be here. This isn’t just a job to us.”

Ireland isn’t so busy that he’s missed the recent tragedies at Aurora and Newtown, though. As a husband — to college sweetheart Kacie — and a father to a three-year-old girl, he says he now sees Columbine and the similar shootings that have followed through a whole other lens. “As a father, you view it from a totally different perspective,” he says. “It’s just a totally different experience.”

Ireland likes to keep his views on gun rights and the other policy issues being hotly debated following Newtown to himself, but he is vocal about one thing: “In my mind, I believe the world is still good at heart,” he says. “And that evil will not win.”

Watching Patrick Ireland, that once-tragic boy in the window, raise a family and build a successful career, it’s a worldview that’s easy to believe.

For more from and about Patrick Ireland, watch the following videos:


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