DeKALB – Maria Christiansen always considers the worst-case scenario as a police officer at Northern Illinois University.
A victim-turned-first-responder, she’s made it her mission to make sure that what happened to her Feb. 14, 2008, will never happen to another student at her alma mater.
Christiansen, then known as Maria Ruiz-Santana, was a 20-year-old Northern Illinois University junior with lofty goals of joining the FBI when it happened.
With 10 minutes left in her oceanography class, a shooter wielding three guns barged onto the stage of the lecture hall and opened fire. Christiansen was severely wounded by a shotgun blast.
“I’ve always wondered why is it that this happened to me, to my family, to my friends,” Christiansen, now 26, said. “But at the same time, things happen for a reason, that’s how I see it. Like my mom or my family tells me, ‘There’s a reason why you’re still here.’
“Maybe you have something that you’re going to do in this world that’s going to make a difference, they still want you here. I definitely want to get the positive out of this.”
Positives have followed for Christiansen. Now an NIU police officer, she patrols the campus where she was wounded. She served under her rescuer, former NIU police Chief Donald Grady. Although Grady was later removed as police chief, the two still have a special relationship.
On Sunday, she will celebrate her first Mother’s Day as a mom to 10-month-old Alexis.
More than six years ago, when the shooter killed five students and injured several others, Christiansen didn’t know much about weapons; she didn’t recognize the weapon in the shooter’s hand as a sawed-off shotgun.
“To me, it looked like a bazooka kind of thing,” Christiansen said, discussing the shooting while on patrol at NIU. “All of a sudden, I just felt pressure on my left shoulder, and after that, I went down to the floor.
“I remember hearing some screaming and noise in the background and heard the shots – ‘bang, bang, bang’ – and after that there was just silence.”
Christiansen’s blood was pooling around her when Grady found her. He dragged her to the end of the lecture hall aisle and elevated her feet to slow her blood loss. Grady asked her questions to keep her alert and distract her from her injuries; Grady remembered that the shotgun pellets had sprayed along her throat and from her nose to her upper chest.
As she lay there bleeding, Christiansen told Grady she was interested in law enforcement.
“I always believed she would make it,” Grady said. “That proved to be true. I never allowed myself to believe she was never going to make it.”
Grady stayed with her until paramedics arrived. A helicopter would later fly her to Advocate Good Samaritan Hospital in Downers Grove.
There, Christiansen and her family learned that shotgun pellets had destroyed her trachea, esophagus, and vocal chords. She underwent five hours of surgery that night; doctors gave her a 50 percent chance of surviving the neck reconstruction. They told her family to say their goodbyes before they began.
Christiansen would be hospitalized only for about two weeks. Once she was out, she wanted to be back on campus, and wanted campus to be back as it was before the shooting.
Within two months of the shooting, she was on campus. She headed for Cole Hall, curious to retrace the steps from a criminology standpoint.
“It was closure,” Christiansen said. “That’s what I needed to move on. I’m not going to forget it, so I need to learn how to live with it.”
With that visit, Christiansen decided to treat the shooting as a past event; she didn’t commit the shooter’s name to memory.
She returned to class almost immediately, her new voice initially squeaky like a 12-year-old girl’s. She completed voice therapy, and on weekends when most of her classmates were busy with other extra-curriculars, Christiansen was attending police academy part-time in Princeton. She interned with NIU police during in fall 2008 and received her badge in March 2009, even before she received her degree.
Years later, Grady still finds her inspirational.
“She had the heart to come back and work for a job in policing,” Grady said. “She’s doing it now. She’s working in the area of protecting people from the very thing that happened to her. She’s very good at what she does.”
When NIU police Chief Tom Phillips arrived on campus in September, Christiansen was one for the first people he wanted to meet.
She went from part-time to full-time at the department after she earned her sociology degree with an emphasis in criminology in May 2010.
She met her husband, DeKalb County Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Christiansen, in the fall of 2010 at a community car-seat check event, where she was translating for Spanish-speaking participants. The couple married May 31.
“I’m impressed with her,” Phillips said. “I don’t know the right words to say for someone who has gone through that. You see how that could impact a person. She has turned around a tragic experience and turned it into a positive.
“Just look at her after going through that experience, not only being an officer, but at the university where this happened. To me, that’s inspirational in and of itself.”
See video of a ride-along with NIU police officer Maria Christiansen online at Daily-Chronicle.com.