Police officer Gerry Realin, one of the first responders on the scene following the Pulse nightclub shooting in June, is fighting the state of Florida to have his post-traumatic stress disorder recognized for workers' compensation purposes, as current policy doesn’t cover psychological trauma.
After a lone gunman opened fire on the Orlando gay bar June 12, killing 49 people, Realin helped remove bodies from the club.
“When he got home, 2:30 the next morning, he came in very quiet … looked at both of our kids, then went in the shower and just lost it,” his wife, Jessica, told Orlando TV station WFTV. “And he didn't stop crying. The next day, it was on and off. And it's just been really hard.”
She said that in the weeks since, her husband has been a “different” person.
“The man that left my house that morning did not come back to me that night,” Jessica Realin said. “He’s still not back.”
The officer said the tragedy, the largest mass shooting in U.S. history, has haunted him. Realin can’t drive by the club without having a panic attack and still sees the bloodshed [“all the red”] everywhere he goes.
But it’s the smell the 12-year veteran remembers most powerfully.
“There was just that smell that saturated my whole body,” Mr. Realin told the Orlando Sentinel. “My hair, my skin, my whole respiratory system.”
Although Realin returned to work two weeks after attack, he struggled to recover, taking frequent days off. The patrolman drained his vacation time and sick days before being placed on paid leave, but he isn’t sure how long that will last. Realin is in a very precarious situation.
Under Florida law, those who experience psychological trauma on the job are not entitled to paid days off — or to have their medical bills reimbursed by their employer.
Ron Clark, a retired state trooper who researches PTSD, told the Sentinel that it’s an unfortunate loophole in the system. “Usually if you break your leg in law enforcement and have psychological issues, you go out on workman's comp,” he explained. “Not with psych-only issues.”
To cover the costs of Realin’s treatment, he and his wife had to set up a GoFundMe page. They are also working with attorney Geoffrey Bichler to challenge the Florida law in hopes of getting it changed.
“It is a travesty that there's no legal protection for a guy like Gerry,” Bichler told the Sentinel. “The law needs to protect them. As a society, we owe it to them.”
It’s estimated that there are more than 100,000 officers across the country suffering from PTSD, a majority of whom are in the same situation as Realin. Currently, just five states in the U.S. recognize psychological trauma, which often leads to self-harm and suicide, as a valid basis for workers’ compensation.
Jessica Realin said that her family, however, is just trying to take it one day at a time. “We don't think about tomorrow,” she added. “We just think about today.”