A Pulse Nightclub Responder Confronts A New Crisis: PTSD
Gerry Realin says he wishes he had never become a police officer.
Realin, 37, was part of the hazmat team that responded to the Pulse Nightclub shooting in Orlando on June 12, 2016. He spent four hours taking care of the dead inside the club. Now, triggers like a Sharpie marker or a white sheet yank him out of the moment and back to the nightclub, where they used Sharpies to list the victims that night and white sheets to cover them.
He says small things make him disproportionately upset. He gets lost in memories of the shooting, he says — his young son will call him over and over again. Then, he gets angry that he let himself get trapped in thought, and that spirals into depression.
"Then there's the moments you can't control," Realin says. "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."
Realin was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and hasn't worked since just after the shooting. He worries about his family, he says, "hiding from your kids so that they're not traumatized by your rage or depression," which "gives them a sense of insecurity, which isn't good."
At least one other police officer has publicly discussed being diagnosed with PTSD after the Pulse shooting, and it's possible there are more who suffer from it. Orlando City Commissioner Patty Sheehan says there are people who go to war and don't see what officers saw inside Pulse.
"I've talked to some of the officers and they're pretty traumatized by what they saw," Sheehan says. "It was horrible, the sights and the smells, and the thing that really haunts them is the cell phones that were in [the victims'] pockets ringing."
Sheehan has heard from first responders and mental health workers that there are more officers, possibly with PTSD, who don't want to come forward because they don't want to be seen as weak or unfit for duty. She says she wishes they would, though.
"If someone is to the point where they have had an emotional stress to where they can't perform their job, of course I don't want to put a gun in their hand," Sheehan says. "That's just common sense to me."
Researchers estimate that 28 percent of mass shooting survivors will develop post-traumatic stress disorder. Researchers say there isn't a lot of data on PTSD rates in first responders, but the it could range from 7 to 19 percent in police officers. When clinicians interviewed more than 400 officers in the Buffalo, N.Y., police department, 15 to 18 percent had PTSD.
A 2012 study found police officers were twice as likely to die from suicide, which can be associated with PTSD, than from traffic accidents or felony assaults.
"I don't think officers are disposable," says Ron Clark, a retired officer who works with Badge of Life, a police suicide-prevention group. He says when he started with the Connecticut State Police decades ago, people were told to suck it up. Officers used alcohol, drugs or sex to cope with stress because, if they spoke up, they were likely to get fired.
But, he says, "Police officers are human beings. They're affected by what they see out there — decapitated children, families wiped out in car accidents, suicides — just name all the horrors you can think of."
The Realins have been advocating for workers' compensation in Florida to cover PTSD. Gerry's wife Jessica Realin visited the state capitol in Tallahassee in April, going door-to-door to ask state senators to support a bill which would give first responders with PTSD access to benefits like lost wages if they can't work.
She tried to meet Republican Anitere Flores, the second-in-command in the Senate, who also chairs the Banking and Insurance Committee that would be voting on the bill later that day. But, even after two attempts, the senator didn't have time.
Realin did meet Democrat Victor Torres, a retired police officer who shepherded the bill. He's seen first-hand what happens when PTSD goes untreated.
"You leave work, have the weekend off and you come in Monday and hear about officer so-and-so committing suicide," Torres says. "Young man. You wonder why. What were his issues?"
The bill did not pass this session, but Torres did get the Banking and Insurance Committee to hear the bill. Realin spoke to the committee, as did Amanda Murdock, whose husband is a Vero Beach, Fla., firefighter with PTSD.
"I'm going to make myself very vulnerable, my family very vulnerable," Murdock told the committee. "This last fall my husband attempted to take his own life. Six days later, one of his closest friends, battalion chief Dave Dangerfield, was successful in taking the final step in taking his own life, leaving behind two sons."
Murdock says all she could think about on the way to the funeral was that it could have been her, losing her husband to suicide. After hearing the testimony from Murdocks, the Realins and others, the committee passed the bill unanimously but, ultimately, it did not move to the House. Advocates vow to try again next year.
Orlando officer Gerry Realin, meanwhile, is trying to cope. He escapes alone on his paddle board on the water, "hearing the sounds of nothing else — the breeze, maybe, wondering where the fish may be, wondering which way the tide is turning, which way the wind is blowing," he says. "For some reason, nothing dark follows me there and I can reset, find some serenity."
This story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, WMFE, Health News Florida and Kaiser Health News.
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