About 4-1/2 years ago, Taylor Woolman harbored dreams and hopes similar to current Belgrade High School students, although her prep accomplishments put her on a Panther pedestal. Then her life veered off in a direction she never could have imagined.
On Monday, Woolman, a 6-foot-1 former star volleyball player with shoulder-length straight brown hair, walked slowly to a podium at the Belgrade Special Events Center. She draped her left hand over the edge of the dais and looked straight towards 900 BHS students gathered for an assembly designed to help them cope with suicide and grief. In a steady voice, she told them, faculty members and school staff her story.
“Honestly, I loved this place. I loved this gym. I loved high school,” she said.
The 2014 BHS graduate, an all-stater in the sport she loved and an Honor Society member, didn’t sugar coat her high school
“I had some crappy days, too. There were a number of days that sucked.”
Still, Woolman saw unlimited horizons ahead. She landed an athletic scholarship to Montana State University-Northern and made the Northern Lights volleyball team as a middle hitter.
Reflecting on her freshman year in Havre, she said, “I thought, this is it. This where life turned around and where life goes good.”
But in a flash, everything changed. She continued:
“Life doesn’t always work that way. Life doesn’t always go perfect, amazing and good.”
In early May 2015, as her first year at Northern wound down, Woolman was finishing classes. She moved out of a dormitory into an apartment that she shared with a roommate, Alicia Schneid.
It was graduation night at Northern, Friday, May 1, 2015, and “we just had to keep this high going,” Woolman said. She and Schneid returned to their apartment with macaroni and cheese. They were joined by another friend, Sam Mix, a wide receiver for the Northern Lights football team. Mix, a sophomore, came to Northern from suburban Seattle, exchanging the hubbub of a metropolitan area for the seeming tranquility of the Montana Hi-Line. The three young people relaxed to watch TV and enjoy comfort food.
“All of a sudden, a home intruder, a random 17-year-old boy on meth broke into our home and grabbed the knives off our counter. And came in and started attacking us,” Woolman said.
Schneid was able to run and hide; Woolman and Mix, a 6-1, 190-pounder, had to try to fend off the attacker.
“We tried to fight him off – we tried to protect herself,” Woolman said.
She was stabbed 28 times while Mix absorbed more than 14 stab wounds, according to Woolman. A later news account said Mix was stabbed 46 times with a 12-inch steak knife. According to authorities, the intruder, Justice Brown, was high on both methamphetamine and marijuana and also was drunk.
Brown, a Native American youngster from the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation, later pleaded guilty to three counts of attempted deliberate homicide and one burglary count. Two years ago, he was sentenced to 140 years in the Montana State Prison.
“We were laying on the floor, critically injured, but I was so frickin’ mad at this dude. I was laying on the floor, bleeding out. I was just angry. I could do nothing other than to ask him, why are you doing this?” Woolman said.
“And I may have called him some mean names – let him know how much of a dirt bag he was.”
When Woolman sat up, that apparently provoked him to a final act of drug-induced rage.
“He actually lunged at me with his last knife and stabbed me in the head. The knife blade broke off in my head.”
Then Brown left. Woolman knew something was wrong – as bad or worse than the original stab wounds she had suffered.
“I was stabbed in the head. I had to pull the knife blade out of my head,” she said.
Struggling with massive injuries, Woolman found her hiding roommate.
“I said, Alicia, Alicia, go get help. She was able to get help from one of our neighbors downstairs. The ambulances arrived and took us to the Havre ER. They determined that our injuries were too critical, too threatening, and we needed to be air flighted to Great Falls.”
Woolman underwent two hours of surgery to stitch her stab wounds, and she started recovering. The right side of her body, however, was non-responsive. Then, doctors realized she had been stabbed in the head and her brain had been punctured. She needed treatment by a neurosurgeon, so she was transferred to the Billings Clinic intensive care unit and put on life support.
“After four days, I was woken up from sedation. Incredibly, my body fought to breathe again. I was able to breath, so I was able to live.”
A further wrinkle occurred. Conscious now, Woolman realized that it was her left side that was affected by the damage to her brain.
“I was telling my left arm to move, but my left arm would not move.”
Woolman recalled that time, in the summer of 2015, as “probably the hardest point of my life, when I realized my body doesn’t work like it used to anymore. My body is not moving the way my brain wants it to.”
She was transferred to a rehabilitation hospital in Denver to learn how to live with her disability “because everybody knew – my doctors at least – that this is the way I’m going to be the rest of my life. I’m going to be permanently disabled. My left arm partly moves, but as you can see, my fingers don’t move at all. My left leg barely moves.”
She notched a major victory after the horror of that May night.
“I wasn’t supposed to walk, and I worked every single day to walk.”
Woolman said there have been “a ton of days where I had to sit there and grieve.” On those days, to overcome her sadness, she pushes herself to work and take her mind off grief.
Understanding she “had no choice” but to preserve, “I had to accept (that) this life is really hard – just work through it.”
Woolman emphasized the company she has had on the journey towards her new life: friends, family, therapists and doctors, who “all told me it’s a good life.
“And you know what? It is. It’s a good life. They told me … feel the pain,” and doing that has given her strength to come back and lead the life of a woman in her early 20s. Her aspirations include finding a career – she’s unsure in what field – and relearning to drive. She wants to travel, too.
“I have so much to look forward to. The future is bright.”
She leveled with her audience about the challenges that lie ahead for them.
“I just want to remind you all there’s going to be sucky days, but you will get through them. “With the help of others, with strength and confidence in yourself … you will get through them.”
Woolman shared her method of handling hard days. She sets a timer on her phone for 10 minutes and gives herself that long to “sob and cry out and beat on the floor and just feel like crap.” When time is up, “I remind myself of everything I’ve accomplished. I lived that night. I kicked ass that night to live. I got a job.”
Just that morning, Woolman said, her natural surroundings lifted her out of any doldrums that might have appeared.
“For me … the mountains. I woke up this morning to sunrise (over nearby ridges). That was enough to be thankful for.”
Her motto: “It’s a good day to have a good day.”