Gerry Realin spent four hours with the dead inside of Pulse Night Club.
He remembers the blood. The smell. The scene was so bad, the eight-member Hazmat team wouldn’t let any other officers help them remove the bodies. That way fewer people had to witness what they saw.
When he came home late the next day, he was quiet. He looked in on his two kids, and then went to take a shower.
“He proceeded to go into the shower, shut the door,” said Jessica Realin, his wife. “I heard him sobbing. He just kept saying over and over he was so sorry for them.”
Jessica Realin said she doesn’t recognize the man who came home that day. He would wake up screaming, or grab her wrist, thinking he was grabbing one of the victims. He tried to work for two weeks, but he couldn’t sleep, and he passed out on the job. As a member of the Hazmat team, Realin was more likely to be called out to a meth lab than a scene with multiple casualties.
Realin was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. Three months later, he’s still working to identify the triggers that take him out of the moment and back into Pulse. Jessica Realin lists them off: White sheets, used to wrap victims. Sharpie markers, used to write on tags.
“Another one is … I’m sorry.”
Jessica Realin takes a breath. Gerry Realin reaches across the table and holds her hand. The Orlando Police Department did not approve multiple requests to interview Gerry Realin for this story.
“I know there are a lot of people that don’t believe PTSD is a real thing, that people should just be able to get over it, but it really is,” Jessica says, tearing up. “It’s hard because when you see your loved one suffering from it, all you want to do is fix it, to make it better. But you can’t.”
Gerry Realin is still not back at work. He’s filed a claim under workers’ compensation for lost wages. But it’s a claim his lawyers expect to lose.
Under Florida law, if you’re disabled because of a mental health diagnosis that was not result of a physical injury, you’re not eligible for lost wages.
So his attorney Paolo Longo is challenging the constitutionality of Florida’s law. And he’s trying to get lawmakers to amend Florida’s law – at least for first responders.
“The law as it stands is bad,” Longo said. “It’s not a department issue. It’s not an Orlando Police Department issue. It’s a Florida statute issue.”
Longo said he has other first responder clients from Pulse, and as an attorney who specializes in representing first responders, he’s seen clients with PTSD before.
“These guys say you know what? I’m not gonna deal with this anymore. I gotta go back to work because I gotta feed my family,” Longo said. “Me getting better isn’t even an issue. And then you’ve got first responders out on the street dealing with these kinds of issues, and that’s not good for anybody.”
John Burton, a Rutgers professor who has been studying workers’ compensation laws for more than 50 years, said about half of states will cover some stress and mental health claims under workers’ compensation. But Florida is one of only 10 states where mental health claims are never eligible.
“The limitations on PTSD under these circumstances seems to me to be unconscionable,” Burton said. “Now, it may be unconscionable, but it’s still legal. We’ll find that out later. But it does strike me as being mean-spirited.”
Gerry Realin is getting a paycheck now. Workers’ compensation is paying two-thirds of his pay because he’s developed severe high blood pressure due to the PTSD. And the Orlando Police Department has relieved him of duty, with pay. But that was done on an individual case basis, and isn’t guaranteed.
“We understand that some people have been affected more than others,” said Orlando Rolon, deputy chief with OPD. “And we are committed, committed, 100 percent to making sure the members of our agency get every available treatment.”
Rolon said there is debate, even among police officers, about whether or not workers’ compensation should cover PTSD. Rolon said officers know going into the profession that you’ll see things you hope others won’t.
“You’re swearing to put yourself between the evil that’s trying to bring harm to the innocent,” Rolon said. “When you ask the question should workman’s comp cover PTSD related conditions for law enforcement officers, I think it’s tough to be able to justify that when you are already expected to be exposed to so much that the average person won’t be able to handle.”
For the Realins, the court case is expected to take several months. But the Realins and their attorney are looking to the 2017 Florida Legislative Session for a change to the law.
Jessica Realin said lawmakers who haven’t heard from her can expect a visit. After starting a GoFundMe page for her husband, she said she was contacted by other law enforcement officers who have PTSD.
“There are dozens and dozens and dozens of first responders suffering with this for a long time,” Realin said. “They’ve been suffering in silence.”
WMFE is a partner with Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Health reporting on WMFE is supported in part by Florida Hospital and the Winter Park Health Foundation.