By Mary Columbo Reichert
On June 12, 2016, a lone gunman entered the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, FL, and created terror where there had been mostly music, drinks, and dancing before. In the end there were 49 dead and 58 injured; 44 of them came to my hospital.
The call came at 3 a.m. “Come in, we have a mass casualty — multiple shootings.” I made coffee as I dressed (I’d worked a full shift already that day) and started the drive to the hospital.
“Mary, the shooter is in the building,” my supervisor said, referring to the hospital. Later, we learned this was not true, but at the time, we had no idea. “Come and meet in the garage. Be cautious and aware of your surroundings.”
I dictated a text to my son as I drove. In my most calm voice, I told him that I was on my way to work for a mass casualty, that I didn’t know the details, but I’d text when I could. Don’t call me. I’ll text. I love you. I wasn’t sure I’d survive this; I thought of the firefighters on Sept. 11, 2001, going into the towers as others ran out; I prayed.
The chaplains entered the hospital together. My first sight was law enforcement officers in full gear, guns drawn. I headed to the ED and began meeting patients, using my minimal Spanish to collect names and phone numbers (it was Latin night at the club). I held hands, offered a peaceful presence or prayer. I assured each patient that we would take the very best care of them and that we would do our best to find their family and fill them in.
Protocol requires the hospital to go on lockdown after a shooting when the perpetrator is unknown. Lockdown means no one comes in or goes out. But at some point, families were allowed into the building and led to a conference room to wait. My next assignment was there. I introduced myself and led an ecumenical centering prayer for the group. I listened to those who wanted to talk and allowed others their silence. I provided rosaries and Wi-Fi passwords and escorted people to different locations.
Every patient who entered was assigned a “Doe” name so we could provide immediate medical treatment. The chaplains’ role was to identify the patient and locate family. I spent the rest of my day cross-referencing those names. At the end of the day, I still had a full page of names not found. I found out later those people had died at the scene.
When I got home around 4:30 p.m., I was physically and emotionally exhausted. I called family and responded to texts. I noticed blood on my clothes and washed them. I ordered pizza and finally broke down when the young delivery boy arrived.
Some people surprised me with their concern and some with their silence. Some annoyed me with their trite or judgmental remarks. The next day I attended a community vigil where I cried and prayed and hugged strangers. The following day, I returned to work.
We had our regularly scheduled work to do, but the atmosphere was changed. We had already begun receiving messages of support and gifts of gratitude from the community and across the country. Strangers called constantly, offering to come and visit, sing or pray. We probably offended many when we respectfully — and sometimes forcefully — declined their offers. (These strangers didn’t have the training or clearance required for our hospital.)
During the event, our adrenalin flowed and we focused on patient care; now we began to care for ourselves and our colleagues. Each member of the staff had a different experience and processed it differently. Teammates who weren’t present felt excluded, relieved, or guilty that they didn’t participate. Teammates who were there tried to purge the sights and sounds from their memory and find a safe place to share their feelings.
Counselors were available onsite for confidential walk-in visits. Chaplains led circle sessions where employees could share their stories and process emotions within a group. We also were available for private sessions. Someone made rainbow ribbons we wore as a sign of solidarity. We provided paper and markers and created a wall where team members could leave public messages (most of them about love, strength, and solidarity). Leadership hosted listening sessions where department members could provide honest feedback on how things went and how they felt. On the one-year anniversary, my department lead a service of song, prayer, reflection and hope for team members, and a plaque was dedicated to that night and the care we continue to provide our community and each other every day.
The journey continues. Counselors have remained available at the hospital, and some groups continue to meet regularly. Members of our administration and medical team provide guidance to hospitals across the country that want to be prepared for a similar event. When tragedy hits another community, the hospital buys banners and we send our own messages of support. My heart breaks each time, and I stop watching the news.
I learned some important things about myself and chaplaincy.
- God chose me, and I go where I’m called. I never considered myself a first responder, but there I was.
- God provides. I’m not fluent in Spanish, but I spoke well enough to help. I was calm and professional in every interaction.
- I am human. By midday, I was tired and grumpy.
- We all need sanctuary. The Spiritual Care Office became a resource hub, and chaplains had no private space to rest and restore ourselves.
- Boundaries are important. The Spiritual Care Department received many calls from people looking for resources or information on how to help. Although we tried to be polite, we couldn’t answer every question or meet every need. “Stay in scope” was my reminder of what my responsibilities are and are not, and to allow myself to say no and care for myself.
- Self-care is key. After the event, I made time to do things that restore my soul.
- People yearn to see goodness. The day after the event, people were already sharing photos and stories of specific services offered and witnessing to compassion and hope.
Mary Columbo Reichert, BCC, is a chaplain at Orlando Regional Medical Center.