Helpers and Healers
By Laura J. Cole
PHOTOS BY BRIAN CARLSON
The tragedy at Pulse has affected us all in some way, no matter who we are or whom we love. The people who were there that night were just as diverse a group as the people who responded in so many ways in the days, weeks and, now, months after the attack. For many, it will never be possible to think about Orlando without at least a note of sorrow for the 49 people killed that morning.
But beyond the sheer destruction and loss of life, the story continues as one of hope and healing. The people who responded to the incident — providing police protection, medical assistance, therapy, whatever was needed — are our helpers and healers, allies and advocates. They are the ones who have worked tirelessly to make our community and world safer and more inclusive — on June 12 and every day before and after.
“That morning we just all ran to the trauma bay. Honestly, at that point, we had no idea what we were dealing with. We were just trying to get everyone stable, save as many lives as we could.”
Aura Sofia Fuentes ’13MD
Third-year surgery resident, Orlando Regional Medical Center
“I was [responding to a call from Seminole County Sheriff’s office], when another call came across the radio advising that there was an active shooter in downtown Orlando. It was clear that they were still in need of assistance.”
Alan Elliot ’06
Corporal, UCF Police
“My phone went off at like 2, 2:30 in the morning [when] one of my partners texted me and said, ‘We have multiple gunshot wounds; please come and help if you can.’ My wife got on her phone and she goes, ‘Oh, my God. Something bad is going on in some nightclub downtown,’ so I put my clothes on and ran to the hospital.”
Critical care surgeon, ORMC
Surgical clerkship director, UCF College of Medicine
“I was in bed asleep when my phone rang, and it was the night shift supervisor. He told me he had limited information but that there was an active shooter downtown and that explosives detection dogs were needed. He asked if Jogy, my K-9 partner, and I could come in. I told him to send me the address and immediately jumped out of bed, threw my uniform on, and we got in the car. … When I arrived and realized the address was Pulse, I immediately [was worried] about my friends.”
Christopher Holt ’07 ’10MS
Officer, UCF Police
“I actually got the phone call about 3:30 in the morning. The mayor’s special assistant Dave Arnott — who is a detective within the police department [and also] the liaison to the mayor’s office — was the one who called me. I didn’t know the ultimate death count. I didn’t know any of that; I just knew it was ongoing.”
Heather Fagan ’13
Deputy chief of staff, Orlando Office of the Mayor
“About six in the morning, I get a call directly from Christine [Mouton, director of UCF Victim Services]. ‘They want you to go to ORMC now,’ so I get off the phone with her, I flip on the news, I run in the shower, get dressed, and I head immediately to ORMC. … I was the first advocate there.”
Coretta Cotton ’94
Victim advocate, UCF Victim Services
“I woke up early in the morning to several push notifications on my phone, all saying the same thing — that there was a shooting at Pulse nightclub. The first thing that I could think of doing was to confirm with as many of my closest friends and loved ones [as possible] to make sure that they were OK.”
Carlos Guillermo Smith ’03
Government affairs manager, Equality Florida
“The first task I was assigned was to start setting up an inner perimeter with crime scene tape. [Later, I went with Officer Holt and K-9 Jogy] to Southern Nights to perform a preventative K-9 sweep of that nightclub and secure that location.”
“The news media were still not clear on what had happened. They were already surrounding the scene while the incident was still unfolding. Even before the first press conference, I started getting calls and emails from local, national and even international media outlets asking for information, interviews, any fact that they could report on, and it stayed like that for days.”
Cassandra Lafser ’04
Press secretary, Orlando Office of the Mayor
“[When I got to the hospital,] I went up to the ICU and walked over to the operating room. I saw one of my partners, and he just said, ‘Stay here. We’re going to send somebody up.’ Basically, for the next six or eight hours, I just stayed in the operating room.”
“I spent most of Sunday just making sure people were where they needed to be, keeping in touch with the news media and what they were saying, and then coordinating and getting ready for the rest of the week knowing that, based on my experience, this was not going to be a one-day event. That was my Sunday, 21 hours of coordinating.”
Christine Mouton ’98 ’01MS
Director, UCF Victim Services
Regional coordinator, Florida Crisis Response Team
“As soon as I woke up, I frantically started texting friends to make sure they were safe. Many were, but then I saw a post from my friend Brandon on Facebook saying he and his boyfriend, Eric, were at Pulse but had managed to escape. I messaged him, and he told me ‘Juan [Guerrero] was shot and is in the ER. Drew [Leinonen] is missing.’ My heart sank.”
David Thomas Moran ’14MFA
UCF Ph.D. student
“[The Center] was the first place that most of us went to, essentially, for our grassroots response from the entire community, not just LGBTQ, but really the Orlando community as a whole.”
Carlos Guillermo Smith
“Around 7:30 [a.m.], I called 211 to let them know that Hispanics would need counseling. We have over 30 therapists that are mobile and bilingual, and we are available to help out. They directed me to go to The Center to register the counselors.”
Denisse Lamas ’00 ’01MSW
Founder, Hispanic Family Counseling
Adjunct instructor, UCF School of Social Work
“I [was the FBI Victim Specialist’s] helper for the day at ORMC. We ended up doing a lot of the death notifications. I wasn’t verbalizing those, but I was in the room for at least five of them, just offering support to families who were obviously going through the hardest day of their lives.”
Victim advocate, UCF Victim Services
“I volunteered to create that GoFundMe site, and we set a modest goal of $100,000, and then $200,000, and then $500,000, and then before you know it, this was the fastest GoFundMe site to reach $1 million, the first ever to reach $2 million, and now we’re at $7.8 million with over 120,000 contributors from 120 countries.”
Ida Eskamani ’12 ’16MPA
Former development officer, Equality Florida
State Youth Vote Director, For Our Future
“The Center offered drop-in care for anyone, and it was around any kind of need. Sometimes, that need was just for people to be in the same place and support each other. Through the Center and Zebra Coalition and then also Hope and Help Center of Orlando and Two Spirit Health Services, people were making lists of counselors who were willing to volunteer. My friends and I got on that list.”
Mary Mann ’04 ’05MSW
Instructor, UCF School of Social Work
“I did a lot of ‘barricade therapy,’ [where] you would kind of lean on the barricades [used] to keep people out of the street. I would sidle up there and go, ‘How are you doing?’ They would tell you how fine they were while tears were running down their face. They would talk to you as long as you were casually hanging out.”
Disaster services responder, American Red Cross
Assistant professor, UCF School of Social Work
“One thing that we learned in social work is that we meet the clients where they are. At that time, they were unable to come out of their homes, so we had to meet them where they were: in their homes, where they felt safe.”
“Monday, I volunteered here [on campus] at the blood drive. That was really nice [after the] horrible thing on Sunday [to] see our UCF community coming together, and you’re telling them, ‘There’s a two or three-hour wait.’ They’re like, ‘That’s OK. I’ll wait.’ ”
Lauren Portal ’11
Victim advocate, UCF Victim Services
“The days following Pulse, my K-9 Jogy and I conducted multiple sweeps to help keep everyone safe at the vigils. We are here to help and support the community.”
“We had the Family Assistance Center open for eight days, and in eight days we had 1,200 representatives from 35 agencies to serve those who needed it. We [had] 956 individuals come through, and those 956 individuals represented 298 families. We helped to serve all of the 49 deceased’s families.”
Kathy DeVault ’01 ’08MPA
Director of strategic partnerships, Orlando Office of the Mayor
“Once the FBI had done their initial interview with the people who were coming in and got the preliminary information on the form, [the role of the Florida Crisis Response Team] was to assign an advocate to that family member and make sure that they were accessing all of the services that they needed. Because unfortunately, when you’re out there, you don’t know what’s available, and [you] just really don’t have a clear understanding of what your needs are over and above the immediate need of ‘I need to bury my family member.’ ”
“We did help out at the Family Assistance Center, which compared to that first day [at ORMC] was so helpful for my healing. At the Family Assistance Center, people were giving away flights and paying for rent and utilities and all the things that people really needed in that time, so it felt really good to be able to help the people who came in navigate those resources.”
“We did a lot of debriefings early on, but people are coming in for individual treatment now and saying, ‘I heard you talk about symptoms going away. I’m one of the ones where the symptoms aren’t going away,’ so we are continuing to see people now.”
“The first two weeks we provided counseling to 312 people. Mind you, now we have 51 people directly involved with Pulse that we are seeing on a probably twice-a-week basis.”
“We had a number of people who completed suicide in the first few weeks. … What really is hard for me is that with all those people on that list, with 665 [counselors] willing to volunteer their time, we couldn’t help everybody.”
“I feel like every step forward I take in coping with the fallout of the Pulse hate crime, I take three steps back. You think you are beginning to make sense of things and then something happens and knocks you clear off your feet. It’s hard not to internalize the pain and grief of the loved ones of the 49, especially Drew’s and Juan’s families and close friends.”
David Thomas Moran
Juan Ramon Guerrero, UCF Student
MY BABY BROTHER, MY MENTOR, MY LOVE, MY WORLD, MI BEBÉ. From the moment you were born, you stole my heart. One of the biggest pleasures I have had in this life was watching you grow into the dedicated and kind man that you became.
I know I’m your sister, but I’ve also felt so much like a mother to you. I remember telling you things like go to school, get good grades, work hard, be responsible, get a good job, make investments, set up your retirement. You exceeded any expectations I ever had for you.
You worked full time at SunTrust so you could pay for college on your own. You had reached your third year of college at UCF, and you had no student loans or any debt. Brother, that is admirable.
It hurts to know that you are no longer part of this world in the physical sense. While I am trying very hard to not allow hate to consume my heart, it is hard not to. There are so many things that I still want to do with you: go to a club together, go shopping, buy those investment properties together, open a business together, go to a concert, play a game of pool with just you, go on that trip to St. Augustine we talked about so much.
Your niece, Chanel, and little nephew, Eric, miss you so much. As their mother, it breaks my heart to see their pain and not be able to take it away or find a way to explain it to them. But I can’t. You did not deserve to be stripped of your life in this manner.
I know that I always told you that what does not kill you will make you stronger, but honestly bro, I am starting to question that philosophy. I did not want to be stronger than I was, and I feel that losing you has made me weaker. What I wouldn’t give to have you here. What I wouldn’t give to switch places with you and for you to be enjoying your life.
Everyone says that you had a good life, and that you’re in a better place and that time heals all wounds, that things will get better — but I resent that, and I certainly do not believe it. Every morning, I wake up thinking the world is just as it should be until I’m reminded again that you are no longer here. I can’t call you. I can’t hug you. I can’t tell you how much I love you.
But I do. So much.
To seeing you again soon.
“In a typical disaster for each person who was there and was injured or is deceased, it might impact six people. But in this particular community because of it being LGBTQ, there were a lot of chosen family members. They estimate that in this particular disaster, for each person who was killed, injured or there that night, it impacts between 10 to 12 people.”
“For us, it’s still a job we’re focused on. We just started distributing funds to victims in September, and we continue to work on establishing some type of permanent memorial somewhere in our city.”
“You’re taught to let victims vent, and you’re validating their feelings. You’re not going to be like, ‘Well, at least you’re alive,’ because you know what? That’s not what they’re feeling right now. They’re like, ‘Really? I was just shot in my legs.’ ‘I was hiding in the bathroom for a couple of hours watching people die on top of me.’ ”
“I think healing may look different for different people. I’ve definitely encouraged people, especially those who experienced [trauma], to seek out therapy and counseling. Even for those who weren’t injured, recovery is going to be a long process.”
“No one, absolutely no one, is able to say what another person is going through and say, ‘OK, you should be over it by now.’ That’s completely inappropriate. Nobody can measure what that length of time might be for another person.”
“[There are certain] memories that I’ll never forget: The amount of law enforcement that showed up and how well everyone worked together. Watching the unmarked black police truck make runs back and forth from Pulse to ORMC. All the violence that occurred and seeing the pain on people’s faces. Hearing dispatch give live updates from 911 callers. The line of ambulances and fire personnel waiting to help the victims, and them standing side by side with police, taking cover when gunfire was exchanged between the SWAT team and the shooter. What the scene looked like once daybreak came.”
“Honestly, for us to be able to save that many lives, we really needed a lot of surgeons. The night before the shooting, our fifth-year residents graduated. The next night, our attendant starts calling them, saying, ‘Hey, I really need you guys to come in. We need all the help we can get.’ All of our chief residents that graduated showed up, even though they were not even part of the hospital, technically, anymore. That was a huge help.”
Aura Sofia Fuentes
“There is a personal moment for me, from 3:30 a.m. to about 7:30 a.m., when we went to the first press conference. You’re in this room, and there are no windows, and you’re insulated a little bit to this incident. You open that door, and it is light outside. You see all the press, and you realize the magnitude of this. The whole world is watching. And it is our job to make sure the world knows what is happening, and that they feel reassured.”
“It was kind of amazing to see the outpouring from our community. Even at the city’s Emergency Operations Center, there were so many different people, businesses — even a Girl Scout troop — that came by to deliver food and coffee or care packages with handmade cards, even bringing therapy dogs just because they just wanted to do something and help. That community support was probably one of the most critical things that kept so many of us going.”
“I remember for a good two or three weeks, I would go out to dinner and all these people were laughing. Why are you laughing? Our city was brought down. We have 49 less people here, and we have all these people hurt in the hospital, and you’re here having a good time. That’s my own issue.”
“My last memory of Pulse is seeing Drew and Juan together on the dance floor. We all hugged and danced together. That’s an important memory for me — knowing that the last time I was there, I saw them and we were dancing and having a great time.”
David Thomas Moran
Christopher Andrew “Drew” Leinonen ’07 ’09MA
FOR 32 YEARS, YOU WERE THE PERFECT HALF TO MY EXISTENCE. I was a single mom and you were my only child, and together, we were the Chris Leinonen team.
You were and are very much loved, by me and all of your friends. I wish too often that I could change places with you. Every day, I want you back. But I know that’s impossible, so I go on and live with the grief, knowing that you suffered the ultimate loss.
I’ve asked myself why so many times, and the answer I keep coming to is that you were gay and had figured out how to be happy — something your killer could not do. Somehow, I’ve been given the platform to let people know who you were and what you stood for. One of those things, for sure, was education. You loved UCF and your time there. You spent two years there as an RA, and being a social director suited you well. And you loved Orlando. Even after going to grad school for clinical psychology in Daytona Beach, you were always back here. Of course you were. You came home to Orlando to complete your supervised hours and stayed here after getting your therapist’s license.
You still had a half century of life yet or more to live. You deserved to have that time. Between you and the 48 other people killed that night, your killer eradicated potentially 2,400 years of life. 24 centuries.
No regular citizen should have the right to have a weapon that can kill so many people so quickly. Your death has forced me to become a mother who has to try to inspire elected officials to pass commonsense gun laws. Your murder demands it.
At the Disarm Hate rally, I met Matthew, whose sister was killed at Sandy Hook. During the four years since that shooting, he’s been trying to convince Congress to make a change — without success. I can’t help but think that had our elected officials done something, you might still be alive. Even so, I live with the pain that any changes we make now won’t bring you back.
Still, I fight this fight for you, for your partner, Juan, and for the 47 other victims in Orlando and the thousands of others who die from senseless violence every year. I will continue this fight because it’s not a matter of whether or not there will be another mass shooting — it’s when.
You would be proud to know that while I fight to change the laws to protect lives, five of your friends are working on spreading love and acceptance through The Dru Project, a nonprofit they created to develop gay-straight alliance programs in schools. That sounds so basic, but it’s often overlooked in our educational programming. Instead of coming up against walls fighting for commonsense gun laws, they are addressing the love side of our existence.
Your murder was senseless and should have been avoidable, but I promise your death will not be in vain.
“I went down to the vigil at Lake Eola, and as we were standing there and they were reading off the names of the victims, I heard people behind me really sobbing. There were actually 4 or 5 young people there. A couple of them were in UCF shirts, and I just opened my arms to the girl right behind me, hugged her, and she hugged me so hard and so long. All I could think of was when I was her age, I was trying to figure out what classes I was going to take in the fall, and here she was obviously having lost someone, and her entire emerging adulthood [was] just shattered by the horror of this whole event.”
“I spoke at the UCF vigil. Wow. There were a lot of people from the community at large on all three levels of the Student Union. It was just awe-inspiring. To me, it was a personal sense of validation that we’re here to help.”
“I remember probably one of the biggest things that spoke to me during the Lake Eola vigil was whe] the owner from Pulse [Barbara Poma ’90] said that she was going to rebuild, that she was there for her employees, she’s there for the people that love Pulse. That really touched me.”
“The rest of the world was not seeing people lined up for a mile to give blood. They were not seeing 665 people on a list to volunteer. They were not seeing that we had 14 sites where we were doing counseling around the clock. They were not seeing football teams turning out to bring water to people standing in line and the businesses downtown bringing food to whoever was working a shift somewhere.”
“When Pulse happened, rather than letting ourselves become divided, we stood shoulder to shoulder and embraced our differences. Orlando finds strength and pride in its diversity, and we approached this crisis the same way. All the different communities came together — the LGBTQ community, the Latino community, the Muslim community, direct service organizations —to say that we’re going to get through this stronger than when we came in.”
“I had someone come in with their parent because they felt like because of Pulse, because they knew that this counseling was [available at The Center], because of the acceptance that was out now, they felt like they could finally come and talk to someone about their questions around their gender expression and gender identity. That, to me, is huge.”
“A few weeks ago, a few of the patients came back to see me in the office. They were just so grateful and wanted to take their picture with me. That was really nice because a lot of times, when you’re taking care of patients in the ICU, they are on a ventilator; they are sedated. So it was really nice when they came back, and they had healed.”
“Even though physical scars [and] medical issues take a while to heal, I think the emotional aspect is what’s really going to affect us in the long run. But I think as long as we realize that we’re in this together, we should be fine.”
Aura Sofia Fuentes
“Hatred, bigotry and racism are killing us. It is why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important. It is the motivation behind the fight for LGBTQ equality. It’s the reason why hate violence is on the rise against Muslim Americans and against those in law enforcement. It’s killing us all, and that is why our work to disarm hate and uproot bigotry is so important.”
Carlos Guillermo Smith
“I hope we can just be Americans and human beings and put away the politics and do something about gun violence.”
“We heal by sticking together and being a community. We support each other and get past all of these prejudices out there. If the tragedy at Pulse changes people and helps them get rid of their prejudices toward gay people then at least something positive can come from it. We are all human. Let’s remember that, and let this tragedy be a turning point for the LGBTQ community.”
“A huge part of my healing is really thinking about intersectionality in my own advocacy work. We have to not only be inclusive of sexual orientation and gender identity and expression, but also race, ethnicity, disability, immigration status, gender, age, religion and language.”
David Thomas Moran
“[Orlando is a city] that values diversity, we are a city that does have a large Hispanic population, that does have a large LGBTQ population. We have a mayor who fights for those populations every single day, and so from that perspective, I think that we’re in a place where we are going to continue to love one another and reach out to one another.”
“I’m very proud of Orlando, but I also know there’s a lot of work to do and we need folks to continue to stay engaged. Change doesn’t happen by accident. We have a saying in the LGBTQ movement, we say ‘Love is Louder,’ but love is only louder when we raise our collective voices.”
“The door’s been opened, and I would like us to maintain this sense of community care and this kind of collectivist support, no matter what your identity is. I think we move forward by holding people accountable as well. For me, when I hear people in places of power, decision-makers, make promises, I’m going to hold them accountable.”
“That’s what I tell people to tell kids, that there will always be bad people in the world, but there are many, many more good people. And the good people are going to work together to make sure the bad people don’t win.”