Gerry and Jessica Realin
A PULSE NIGHT CLUB RESPONDER CONFRONTS A NEW CRISIS: PTSD
Photo credit: Abe Aboraya/WMFE
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 Floridaand Kaiser Health News.
Original story found at: http://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2017/06/12/531751457/a-pulse-nightclub-responder-confronts-a-new-crisis-ptsd
Story shared with direct permission from Gerry Realin.
Shawn Receiving an Award from FL (R) Govt. Scott
Shawn A. Abbatessa, U.S.A.F.
On August 2, 1990 I was 20 years old and attached to the Security Police Squadron at Comiso Air Base, Sicily. For me, that day forever changed me. That is the day Iraq invaded Kuwait. I vividly remember our base gates being locked, phones disconnected, and a knock on my dormitory door. The Captain at my door ordered me to the base movie theatre. There, my squadron learned about the invasion of Kuwait and we were told we had 2 hours to gather our “ready bags” and to be prepared to depart for the Middle East.
Before I knew it I was on a C-130 headed to Doha, Qatar being escorted by F-16’s. On the flight over we were told we had not received permission yet to land in country and quite possibly could face hostilities as soon as the C-130 cargo door opened. This was the beginning of a fear that I can’t put into words. From that day forward, my life changed forever. Upon my arrival I wrote a letter to my family. I couldn’t tell them where I was at but they knew. This letter was my last will and testament. I had no idea if I would survive so I wrote it. I sent a letter within a letter. The first, was an explanation of the inside letter and a request that if I should parish to please open and read the second at my funeral.
Our base at Doha, Qatar saw a lot of action during the liberation of Kuwait. Our F-16 pilots faced much adversity during the campaign. We lost several aircraft and two of our pilots were captured by the Iraqi Forces and were paraded as POW’s through the streets of Baghdad. Several others were shot down by SAM’s (Surface to Air Missiles) but thankfully were recovered by American Forces.
In addition, during the height of the liberation, Saddam Hussein launched SCUD Missiles (a tactical ballistic missile) continuously at multiple targets through the region. On any given day, our location was targeted multiple times. I can still hear the base attack warning siren sounding loudly for several minutes to warn us of an incoming missile. It usually fell eerily silent for several minutes while we finished dawning our chemical gear and rushed to shelter in a bunker. Then you waited. You waited for a Patriot Missile (A U.S. missile designed to intercept SCUD’s) to do its job or for the explosion of impact. The latter is something I have nightmares about often. When it hits you feel it in your bones. You check to see if you are alive and you appendages are still intact. Then, you hear chemical warning alarms sounding throughout the base and wonder if that particular missile was loaded with chemical warfare agents – scared can’t describe the feeling.
When Kuwait was liberated I returned to the states to a hero’s welcome. I was humbled by the reception but something inside me wasn’t right. I had vivid nightmares, terrible memories, I trusted no one, and never felt happy. I suffered for years and years without help or a diagnosis and lived in fear of the memories in my head. Finally, in 2014 I worked with the Veterans Administration and was diagnosed with PTSD. Today, with the help of organizations like Waves to Recovery, I live a fulfilling life and take pride in giving back to my community. Each day is still a struggle but I have learned how to manage it and I look forward to the next sunrise.
Shawn A. Abbatessa - Spokesperson
Shawn with some of his AF brothers.
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