“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping. To this day, especially in times of ‘disaster,’ I remember my mother’s words and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”
Mr. Fred Rogers
Sunday, June 12, 2016 was a day Orlando — and the rest of the country — will never forget. In the early morning hours, a gunman opened fire inside Pulse Orlando, a popular gay nightclub celebrating Latin night. Forty-nine people lost their lives, and another 53 were wounded in a tragedy now remembered as the worst mass shooting in American history.
Countless helpers emerged in the days following that summer night, with thousands of residents lining up to donate blood and participate in vigils throughout the city, despite scorching temperatures. In the days and weeks after, crowds gathered at iconic Central Florida locales, with vigils held everywhere from the University of Central Florida to the Doctor Phillips Center for the Performing Arts, and even a six-month remembrance ceremony at Pulse Night Club. And ever since it was surrounded by a police border, the nightclub entrance has been adorned with flowers, banners, pictures and letters honoring the victims.
The City Beautiful has grown more unified and compassionate since Pulse, as residents, local businesses and the LGBTQ+ community continue to heal together. But many are still feeling the aftershock of the event, including survivors and first responders.
Officers on the Line
In the one year since the tragedy, the city of Orlando has worked to comfort and heal not only the families of those who were lost, but also the hearts of those who survived. The survivors come in many forms: loved ones who narrowly escaped, friends who had to heal from their own physical wounds while mourning the loss of others, and the police and first responders who dealt with the immediate aftermath.
The law enforcement and medical personnel who responded went to work that Sunday just like any other day, not knowing that they would endure a night that would change their lives and city forever. The aftereffects of the Pulse tragedy manifest themselves in unexpected ways and with unlikely triggers. White sheets, markers and perhaps the most alarming — a cell phone call — are enough to paralyze some of the men and women who worked so feverishly that night.
For Officer Omar Delgado, the sound of a ringing cell phone is more than a call. It’s an alarming reminder of the horrors of that night. It’s a sound that haunts many officers as the soundtrack to the evening was a sea of cell phones ringing — both during and after the standoff. It’s the sound of frantic loved ones trying to reach out to those whose lives had already been taken. It’s the sound of parents, siblings, boyfriends and girlfriends, and even acquaintances desperately reaching out to know if the person on the other line is safe.
“To this day, I can’t hear an iPhone ring,” Delgado tells the New York Times about life after Pulse. “Knowing that the person calling that phone will probably never hear the other person answer it again.” Like many first responders who’ve faced catastrophic events head on, Officer Delgado suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder, forced to relive the night every time a trigger unleashes visceral flashbacks.
“I literally felt like I was standing there at the club, my feet hurting, my arms hurting from holding my weapon,” Delgado says about hearing the ringing of an iPhone. It’s just one symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, a byproduct of the shock of terrifying events like Pulse. It affects survivors of all kinds, with police as no exception. Approximately 7.7 million adults in the U.S. suffer from this debilitating mental disease. It can grip anyone, at any age, after being the victim of or witnessing a traumatic event.
Healing After Crisis
Officer Delgado isn’t alone. Gerry Realin, a member of the Hazmat team tasked with clearing the club in the wake of the shooting has suffered immensely. He struggles to cope, constantly dealing with seemingly unprovoked rage or sadness. But there’s more to PTSD than the reactions to otherwise normal daily tasks or images; there are unconscious ramifications too.
“There’s the moments you can’t control,” Realin tells Health News Florida reporter Abe Aboraya. “The images or flashbacks or nightmares you don’t even know about, and your wife tells you the next day you were screaming or twitching all night.”
The psychological effects of the event are wide reaching. For Officer Realin, his PTSD diagnosis impacts not only himself, but also his family. He’s admitted to hiding from his children to avoid subjecting them to his depression and insecurity.
It’s an issue that, when left untreated, could impact generations. Research estimates that 28 percent of mass shooting survivors deal with PTSD, but statistics on first responders are still vague. The dedicated men and women of the fire service industry are twice as likely as the general population to experience PTSD. Some projections place police officer PTSD between seven and 19 percent, not necessarily taking into account massive events like Pulse.
As Orlando continues to heal, more officers and survivors may come forth with PTSD and other emotional side effects. There’s no one-size-fits all approach to grief, trauma and tragedy. But the city has some of the most important tools for healing: love and acceptance.
While citizens of Orlando have showered the first responders of Pulse with unending gratitude and support, some Florida laws remain rigid in helping police officers cope with the events of June 12, 2016. The survivors of mass shootings often receive compensation along with ongoing psychological treatment, but the same is rarely true for first responders, who are expected to keep working despite the mental and emotional weight of the horrors they handle. For Orlando’s officers, time off due to trauma isn’t really in the job description, or covered by workers’ compensation.
Under Florida Statute 112.1815, Officer Realin’s PTSD and hypertension are not considered “work-related injuries.” And while he receives a portion of his salary, he does not qualify for workers’ compensation to cover his long-term psychological disabilities as a result of what he experienced.
The financial burden this law imposes on Realin is salt on an open wound. Unable to perform his usual police duties, he was ordered back to work, despite a disability diagnosis. The new job keeps him out of the field, but requires him to report to the courthouse to administer a bike safety course.
It’s OK to Ask for Help
Paramedics, EMT personnel and firefighters are often the first to respond to incidents of human tragedy and the last to forget it. Years of job-related trauma add up, leaving unseen scars that worsen over time, often leading to substance abuse and even suicide. Chuck Talbott, a 27-year veteran of the fire service, knows the agony of PTSD, saying, “The most challenging part of the job isn’t physical — it’s seeing things the human mind wasn’t designed to see.”
Leading a selfless life leaves little resources for therapy, but there’s an even larger roadblock to getting help: the stigma surrounding PTSD. Ninety-two percent of firefighters and first responders view seeking treatment as a sign of weakness. Admitting the need for therapy can mean “fit for duty testing” at best, and could jeopardize a first responder’s career at worst. Many choose to bottle up their PTSD, anxiety and depression, often with disastrous consequences. But as Mike James, 24-year fire service veteran said, “Asking [for help] is the hardest part. You have to get over your own pride if you want to get better.”
Even though it’s difficult, saying “I need help” can mean turning a new leaf in life for first responders — and you. PTSD doesn’t have to control the trajectory of your life. It’s possible to let go of fear, anxiety and stress to rebuild peace of mind. Whether you’re a first responder or a citizen, you deserve to find healing.
Central Florida continues to heal, but is never broken. Guided by the light of 49 inextinguishable lives, The City Beautiful is a shining example of resilience and unity in the face of tragedy. The Recovery Village is proud to call Orlando home, standing in solidarity with the beautiful diversity that gives the community its strength. With love as a constant beacon, those who are still healing will never be alone, and those who were lost will never be forgotten.