Introduction

In Volunteer Services, we are trained to be attuned to the emotions and needs of our patients and family members. At no time in my career has that training been more evident than during the hours and days following the Pulse shooting. On a typical day, members of the volunteer services and patient experience teams at Orlando Health Orlando Regional Medical Center (ORMC) interact with dozens of visitors, most of them asking for directions to patients’ rooms or delivering mail or flowers. But on June 12, 2016, everything was amplified — thousands of calls, hundreds of guests looking for news about their loved ones and everywhere the question of alive or dead.

 

The weight of all those hurting hearts was at times a difficult assignment. In the aftermath of the tragedy, I started journaling as a way to sort through and cope with what I had witnessed in the sad, hopeful, crushed faces of victims’ families and friends.

 

As I look back over what I wrote in the summer of 2016, a handful of passages stand out as guideposts for others who may find themselves in this situation. I’m often asked how I dealt with those intense days, and these snapshots capture a lot of that in-the-moment rawness. I use them as examples to illustrate some of the key takeaways of how we helped our patients, their loved ones and each other during this national tragedy.

 

The first family that I helped was a mom and dad, brother and girlfriend. The mom I will never forget as long as I live — Elaine. She was wrapped in a blanket. She was shivering so violently she was convulsing. She was not cold. She was in such panic and fear she was literally shaking. The kind of shake that jolts your whole body every few seconds and makes your teeth chatter. She was holding a cell phone. “My daughter is here! She is on the phone right now. I know she is here — why can't I see her? Why won't anyone take us to her? She has been shot. I know she is here!!”

 

I looked at her and I thought...if I knew my son was here and shot — possibly dying — you would have to hold me down with restraints or kill me to keep me from him. 

 

Within the first hour, we saw the physical toll this emotionally charged situation was taking on victims’ family members and friends. We kept note pads with us and wrote down family members’ names and who they were looking for. We collected details and spent time reassuring the families that we were looking for their loved ones. We delivered as many chargers as we could find in the gift shops. We organized the tables in the family room so that they were around outlets so that they could stay connected to family and info on their phones. We hugged and cried with the friends and family members of the victims, and we provided empathy and information as often as we could.