Miya Rodolfo-Sioson, 1968-2008

Miya RodolfoMiya Rodolfo-Sioson, the lone survivor of a 1991 shooting spree on the University of Iowa campus, died of breast cancer Wednesday. She was 40. Rodolfo-Sioson died with her brother, Renato, at her side at Alameda County Medical Center-Highland Hospital in Oakland, Calif. The hospital was treating Rodolfo-Sioson for stage four breast cancer — the most serious stage, in which cancer has spread to another organ of the body.

In a statement released by the hospital, her family said, “The family appreciates all of the support they have received from their many friends from around the country and especially the members of the disabled community.”

Rodolfo-Sioson was paralyzed from the neck down when she was shot on Nov. 1, 1991, by disgruntled UI doctoral graduate Gang Lu in an infamous campus murder-suicide spree that attracted national attention. She was one of six people Lu shot that day and the only one who survived. Lu also shot and killed himself. Rodolfo-Sioson was 23 and an undergraduate at the time, majoring in global studies and working in Jessup Hall, where she was shot. 

In a statement, the UI said officials were deeply saddened to learn of Rodolfo-Sioson’s death. “She was a remarkable woman who inspired everyone she met,” the statement said. “Despite her serious injuries, she courageously dedicated her life to the service of others. We express our heartfelt sympathy and support to her family and friends.”

Rodolfo-Sioson moved to Berkeley, Calif., in 1996 with Renato after tiring of Iowa’s cold winters, she told The Gazette in 2001. Her mother already lived in Berkeley. She became an advocate on behalf of the disabled and served as chairwoman of the city’s Commission on Disability. But she rarely brought up the shooting and sometimes even told people her injuries resulted from a car accident. “Most people here don’t know about the shooting, so I don’t tell them,” she told The Gazette. 

Dmitri Belser, who served on the Commission on Disability with her, had heard the car accident story. He didn’t know of the campus shooting until a Gazette reporter told him Wednesday. “How she became disabled probably wasn’t very important to her,” Belser said. “What was important to her was how she lived her life.” Rodolfo-Sioson apparently carried that philosophy with her as her health declined. Last month, she told KGO-TV in San Francisco: “To me this event (the shooting) is like ancient history. There’s so much that’s happened since then.”

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This article was originally published in The Gazette Oct. 28, 2001.:
Miya Rodolfo-Sioson sometimes tells people she was in a car accident. It’s not that it’s too painful to recall how a bullet fired into her mouth on Nov. 1, 1991, left her paralyzed from the neck down. It’s just that she’s too busy to tell yet another person the story of Gang Lu, a University of Iowa doctoral graduate in physics, who shot her and five others.

“Most people here don’t know about the shooting, so I don’t tell them,” Rodolfo-Sioson, 33, says from a large room on the third floor of a hospital clinic near her Berkeley home. 

She is lying on a padded table, waiting for Paul Trudeau, a seating and mobility clinician from Stanford University, to return with new armrests for her wheelchair. Trudeau already has positioned a newly padded seat on the wheelchair Rodolfo-Sioson uses. Once the armrests are in place, he wants her to test the fit. Rodolfo-Sioson’s attendant, Kelly Kolberg, lifts the tiny woman into the chair and positions her legs and arms in the right direction. While Rodolfo-Sioson can’t feel any awkward angles, she will know it later when her neck gets sore.

A decade has passed since Gang Lu’s massacre on the UI campus changed the lives of many in the UI community, including Rodolfo-Sioson, who was an undergraduate student at the time. Since the attack, Rodolfo-Sioson not only has learned to function with her disability, but has dealt with the after-effects, such as working with insurance companies to pay for her expensive, full-time care and special equipment.

The bright young woman does not often dwell on the events of Nov. 1, 1991. But she shared some of her time with The Gazette as a way to commemorate the day that altered her life forever.

The little things
This warm September day is pretty normal for Rodolfo-Sioson. Kolberg, 29, a student at John F. Kennedy University in nearby Orinda, arrives at 8 a.m. to start Rodolfo-Sioson’s range-of-motion exercises, the only physical therapy Rodolfo-Sioson has maintained since being paralyzed. Kolberg dresses Rodolfo-Sioson, carefully threading her limbs through the clothing. She layers a tank top, fleece pullover and scarf on Rodolfo-Sioson’s top half and shorts and blanket on her lower half. Dressing warmly is one way Rodolfo-Sioson guards against chills that she often feels, despite her paralysis.

Rodolfo-Sioson takes other precautions to avoid injury to the parts of her body she can’t feel. She wears gloves to protect her hands from sunburn and has one of her attendants turn her in the middle of the night so she doesn’t get pressure sores. Rodolfo-Sioson directs Kolberg with verbal commands. “Find my black headband. The lacy one,” she says. Kolberg digs the band out of a drawer. She combs Rodolfo-Sioson’s long, shiny black hair into a low ponytail before smoothing back loose hairs with the headband.

Rodolfo-Sioson scans her face in a mirror placed on a desk attached to her wheelchair. She asks Kolberg to cover a scar on her upper chest. That is where doctors at University Hospitals in Iowa City performed a tracheotomy to put Rodolfo-Sioson on a respirator after her breathing was disrupted by the bullet that penetrated her lower lip and floor of her mouth before lodging in her vertebrae. “I was lucky my injury was low enough that I didn’t have to stay on the respirator,” she says.

The realization hits: paralyzed for life. In the months following the shooting, surgeons repaired Rodolfo-Sioson’s lip, implanted false teeth and removed the bullet from her neck. But she knew early on that paralysis would be permanent. “I don’t remember if it hit me all at once. I was a little depressed the first year,” she says.

This is the first time since being hired in July that Kolberg has heard Rodolfo-Sioson talk about the shootings. Kolberg learned of the events from Rodolfo-Sioson’s mother, Sonya. “Miya doesn’t talk about her feelings. She’s very cut-and-dried,” Kolberg says. 

Rodolfo-Sioson’s optimism through her recuperation after the shooting has been noted by doctors, UI administrators and friends. “Some of that is a little bit of a show,” she says. After all, there were cameras pointed at Rodolfo-Sioson for years after the tragedy and Rodolfo-Sioson isn’t the type who likes pity. Rodolfo-Sioson says, with a hint of amusement, she knows a major anniversary of the Gang Lu shooting is coming because she gets calls from reporters. This year, she plans to do something fun on Nov. 1, like go to an All Saints Day party in the Mission District of San Francisco.

A busy lifestyle: When Rodolfo-Sioson returns from the clinic, she talks on the phone with a man named Don about the upcoming meeting of Berkeley’s Commission on Disabilities, of which she is the chairwoman. They discuss the best way to convince the Berkeley City Council not to fund community events that aren’t fully accessible to people with disabilities. The latest offender is the Berkeley Free Folk Festival. “I’m just not comfortable making the decision myself,” she tells Don, over the speaker phone. “You shouldn’t have to,” Don says. “I’m going to send your suggestion to a few other people,” Rodolfo-Sioson says before using her mouthstick to hang up the phone. The stick has a rubberized mouthpiece attached to a straight probe. The probe allows her to use head motions to punch the keys on her phone and computer, which she boots up to forward an e-mail from Don to three other commission members.

She surfs the Internet to find out Berkeley’s population. After sorting through nearly 100 hits, she finds the 2000 Census data that says 102,724 people live in Berkeley. About 17,000 of those are disabled, she says. The commission she leads works to ensure that curbs are cut for wheelchair use and that sidewalks are free from tables or signs.

One of the commission’s most rewarding projects, Rodolfo-Sioson says, is advising a non-profit developer on how to create apartments for people with disabilities. This developer is building larger apartments so people who have disabilities have more dwelling options. “They run into a lot of opposition from people who don’t want more traffic and density,” she says of the non-profits. “Maybe it’s just a thing in the big city.” 

Life at home: For a couple of hours in the afternoon, Rodolfo-Sioson functions fine without an attendant while Kolberg goes to the grocery store. Suddenly she yells for her brother, Renato, who is a part-time attendant and housemate, to heat up some water and find her something to eat in the refrigerator. Rodolfo-Sioson has five attendants, including Renato, and their mother, Sonya. Miya, Renato and Sonya Rodolfo-Sioson live together in a ranch-style house that has been equipped with a ramp on the front and a wheelchair lift to a back deck. 

Rodolfo-Sioson’s corner of the house is a sunny room with wood floors. She recently had a carpenter knock out part of her south wall to create a three-panel window and a place for her computer. She also has a large bathroom with a whirlpool tub, about which her friends tease her because she’s not yet used it.

Iowa City and its chilly winters lost their appeal for Rodolfo-Sioson in 1996. That’s when she and Renato moved to Berkeley, the famously liberal college town, where their mother was already living. “It’s so expensive to live here, but there really are progressive politicians,” Rodolfo-Sioson says. “There’s a lot of diversity, which is nice. It was a little alienating growing up in such a white environment.” 

Rodolfo-Sioson’s family moved from the Philippines to Ames in 1969, when her father got a job teaching mathematics at Iowa State University. Her father died shortly after they came to Iowa.

Grinnell College was Rodolfo-Sioson’s first choice for college, but she decided on UI because it was more affordable, she says. While at UI, Rodolfo-Sioson majored in global studies and got hooked on efforts to bring peace to Central America. She visited Guatemala in 1988, Nicaragua in 1989 and El Salvador in 1991, just months before the shooting.

Rodolfo-Sioson has vague memories of that blustery day in November 1991. She remembers Gang Lu coming into the office of T. Anne Cleary, the associate vice president for academic affairs, in Jessup Hall. “He seemed a little bit nervous. Who knows what he had going on in his head,” she says. After shooting Cleary, Lu pumped a bullet into Rodolfo-Sioson. She was the only person shot that day who did not know Lu and who had nothing to do with his frustrations with the university. She was also the only person who lived. 

10 years after: Rodolfo-Sioson’s upbeat attitude through her recuperation inspired the campus. For a decade, she hasn’t dwelled on her injury and, instead, uses her position to promote causes she supports. If Rodolfo-Sioson is bitter, she hides it well. She says she has common human feelings of wanting to do more with her life, wanting to reach new goals, but those feelings don’t seem to come from anger about the shooting. “I get frustrated with myself because I feel like I should have a career right now,” she says. Rodolfo-Sioson thinks about being a full-time adviser for non-profit builders. She also considers counseling. Both would require additional schooling.

“There’s a little bit of a limit to what I can do. I have to have an attendant there,” she says. She also worries she may not have the interest to get through graduate school or the stamina to keep up with a regular job. But there are things in life Rodolfo-Sioson is sure about. She knows she wants to put a small greenhouse in a her back yard. She knows she needs to talk slower at commission meetings so everyone can hear. She knows she wants to visit her two other brothers in Austin, Texas. 

As the 10-year-anniversary of the Gang Lu shootings comes and goes, Rodolfo-Sioson knows that life will continue and that she’s a part of it.