Orlando, Fla. – September 2017 – It’s been more than a year since a lone gunman opened fire on an unsuspecting crowd in the packed confines of Pulse nightclub in Orlando, and killed 49 people while injuring 53 others.
VITAS Healthcare Hospice Chaplain Felix Montanez remembers that day, June 12, 2016, with chilling clarity. The chaplain had been doing what he usually did on a Sunday: serving as a deacon, preaching the 8 o’clock sermon at St. Augustine Church in Castleberry, just outside of Orlando, FL, when he got a phone message: Please call we need you. Urgent.
Besides working for VITAS, Chaplain Felix is also a volunteer chaplain with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, and he gets calls for help regularly. But this was different.
As he remembers hearing the details of the massacre that had targeted the club where around 300 members of Orlando’s large LGBTQ and Puerto Rican communities had come together to celebrate “Hispanic Night,” Chaplain Felix says, “The horror I felt then, it’s still present a year later.”
“I went home, put on my sheriff’s uniform and spent the next 12 hours at the Hampton Inn right next door to Orlando Regional Medical Center, where the wounded from the club were being brought,” he recalls.
He remembers calling his fellow Puerto Rican and coworker, VITAS Healthcare Bereavement Manager Eva Pagan-Hill, who showed up with other counselors. “We worked with frantic families, trying to comfort them. Many of them only spoke Spanish, some had no money and no place to stay. We did all we could to help,” says the chaplain.
But amid the terror and loss, Chaplain Felix also felt a sense of purpose and coming together. In the months following the tragedy, he saw the LGBT community receive support and acceptance, as they went through the grieving process.
Learning from a Tragedy
One striking element that emerged in the aftermath of the tragedy was the lack of preparation and resources at the county level. “We had never experienced terror of this magnitude before,” says the chaplain. “The county had to scramble to meet the needs of the community. They reached out to local companies like VITAS and religious institutions.”
As time went by, it became evident that the the county had to deal with more than just logistical issues. The chaplain recalls the lack of information, the absence of a system to tackle the deluge of questions coming from frightened families and friends who were trying to find their loved ones. The “not knowing” fueled everyone’s frustrations.
The resulting chaos and anger spurred the county to prepare for potential terror attacks. In the year since the tragedy, the county has created a pool of resources—counselors, chaplains, volunteers, among others—who can be depended upon to show up in case of another event.
VITAS continues to take a leading role in the planning exercise, helping local county officials set up an emergency system that could operate smoothly, when needed.
Keeping Community Needs at the Forefront
VITAS remains very active in offering support to the Orlando gay and Hispanic communities, including offering bereavement counseling to those affected by the tragedy.
“Immediately after the shooting, we set up bereavement groups,” says Chaplain Felix. “From families and friends of victims to others traumatized by the attack, we offered help to anyone who needed it.”
The last bereavement group led by VITAS for Pulse-related counseling closed recently, as people slowly stopped showing up. “Healing takes time and in most cases, some scars will remain. People still worry about another attack and how one can cope,” he says sadly. “But we are better prepared now. As much as I pray that this won’t happen again, I know that our crisis intervention infrastructure is stronger than before.”
Chaplain Felix was recently on a three-member panel hosted by Florida Hospital as part of a larger conference addressing the fallout from the Pulse shooting. Accompanied by Kissimmee comissioner and a clinical social worker, the VITAS chaplain addressed various fears raised by the audience about the recurrence of such attacks.
Chaplain Felix also underwent crisis intervention training in case of a terrorist attack. This module teaches how to react and help when faced with violence.
A Year Later and Still Healing
Chaplain Felix remembers how appreciative people continue to be a year later. “Families tell me, ‘We couldn’t have done this without you,’” he says. “I don’t say much. This is where I want to be, helping and spreading love.”
Since then, like the rest of the community, Chaplain Felix continues to heal slowly. He is grateful for VITAS’s support as he works relentlessly to take care of his community members, and his patients and their families.