March 6, 2019

Here is your Wednesday Wisdom series from the Family Assistance Foundation, reminding you that a fully-integrated approach for assisting survivors of traumatic loss involves a balance of head and heart. Wednesday Wisdom is written and copyrighted by Carolyn V. Coarsey, Ph.D., and distributed by the Family Assistance Education & Research Foundation Inc., . Reprint is available with written permission from the Foundation.

Pulse Nightclub Shooting Survivor: A Case Study in Resilience

“I heard the sound of pop, pop, pop! At first, I thought it was the music. But when it kept going, I realized it was gunshots. I assumed that two people had gotten into an argument and were shooting at one another. And then I realized it was one crazed gunman shooting randomly at all of us in the club!”
Jeff Xavier, Survivor, Pulse Nightclub Shooting, June 12, 2016, 49 deaths and 53 injured

----- Those who attend the Family Assistance Foundation’s Member Partner Meeting April 4-5, 2019, will meet and hear from several fascinating survivors; including those who are moving from being powerless victims of crazed shooters to becoming productive survivors-- determined to create lives of meaning. Jeff Xavier was 37 years old when he went out for a night of fun and laughter with friends at the Pulse Nightclub. They could have no way of knowing that after midnight, the club would become the scene of the deadliest shooting in US history at that time, June 12, 2016. Two weeks later he woke up in the hospital surrounded by family and friends. Instantly recalling the events that brought him there, he first thought he was viewing his wake. It took several moments for him to realize he had survived the shooting.
----- When I was listening to Jeff tell his story over two years after the shooting, I recalled the very definition of resilience. In the past, resilience was referred to as a trait that someone either possessed or did not. Today, psychologists like Dr. Rick Hanson in his book Resilience defines the term as a strength that can be acquired and developed during life’s experiences. Using Dr. Hanson’s discussion of strengths that one can grow inside in the face of adversity, i.e., grit, gratitude, and compassion; Jeff’s story provides an excellent example of how one man is using a tragic experience to truly become resilient.

----- Surviving the shooting in itself is a miraculous story. Jeff and his friend Angel ran into the men’s room with others who were trying to escape the bullets. Unknown to them at the time, the other friend they were with the night of the shooting, “V” took shelter in the same handicapped stall. Ultimately, Jeff would learn that a total of fifteen to twenty people crowded into the stall—stacked in the best they could, seeking refuge. Her presence with them proved to be more than a source of emotional support. V, a young medical student, later would save Jeff's life as he bled profusely over three and a half hours before being rescued.
----- Within moments after the gunman began shooting at people on the open dance floor and bar area, he entered the men's room and began firing into the stalls. Jeff could hear the cries of others calling out for mercy as the firing continued. Encouraging everyone in their stall to be quiet, the fear the men experienced during those few moments was overwhelming. The shooting stopped as the gunman exited the men’s room but started up again as he opened fire at those hiding in the women’s room.
----- Jeff described the horror of listening to the bullets as they continued to rain down on the innocent men and women near where he and his friends were hiding. Then, unbelievably tragic for those in the men’s room, the gunman returned, and begin shooting diagonally into the stall. Despite his pleading to everyone to stay low and quiet, Jeff was devastated to see one young woman hoist herself to the top of the stall. She called out to the shooter to spare her life, but tragically, climbing above the stall door gave the shooter the perfect fatal shot. She fell backward directly into Jeff's arms where she drew her last breath.

I heard the shooter laughing. I knew we would die that night. I went on Facebook and told everyone that I was in the Pulse Nightclub Shooting. I said good-bye.
-Jeff, Shooting Survivor
----- During the continuing assault on those in the stall, Jeff was wounded in his leg, arm, and neck. His best friend Angel was wounded twice. Passing in and out of consciousness, Jeff clung to life. It was after the two men realized they had been struck by bullets that they discovered V was in the stall with them. She worked tirelessly to stop Jeff’s bleeding where she could. When Jeff would seem to be passing out, she would slap his face and call out to him that he must not fall asleep. After over an hour had passed, not sure what was happening, other than the shooting had stopped in their area, Angel crawled out to find help. V and Jeff feared this would be the last time they would see their friend. The scene in the men’s room went on for Jeff and V and the others for three and a half hours.
----- Although still unsure as to the truth about bombs posing additional harm to the victims and rescuers, determined to save lives one way or another, responders broke through the bathroom wall with an explosive breach. They then widened the openings by slamming an armored truck into the hole. Unable to get out on his own, V and another survivor lifted Jeff out of the opening where he was rushed to medical care.

----- Like others who were part of the Pulse Nightclub shooting, Jeff can hardly say enough about those who came to the scene to help survivors that night. The shooter's threats about bombs caused a significant delay in the rescue. But when EMS and medical personnel were able to respond, so did community members, at large. Local people transported survivors to area hospitals in the beds of their pick-up trucks. Without enough ambulances to carry the victims, these efforts saved lives.
----- Jeff became very close to members of the local EMS, and today regards many as family. For the twelve surgeries that Jeff has endured, the response by physicians and other members of the medical community continues to both amaze and validate him. The on-going support by the city reflects the tremendous empathy and compassion that the Orlando people carry toward the survivors of the horrific event.
---- After being released from the hospital, Jeff contacted the family of the young woman who died in his arms during the shooting. After introducing himself and offering his condolences, he let her family know that should they ever wish to hear more about the events of the tragic night, he would be willing to share information and answer any of their questions. Recently, her brother reached out and is ready to meet Jeff and learn more about her final moments. Currently, the men are planning the meeting.
----- As examples of the compassion that Jeff now feels for other trauma survivors, he works with Crime Survivors for Safety & Justice, the OneBlood blood centers, advocates for Gun Rights, and volunteers with the LGBTQ and Latinx communities. Jeff has discussed the shooting and his story on the Discovery Channel and CNN.  The subtitle of Dr. Hanson’s book, Resilience , “How to Grow an Unshakable Core of Calm, Strength, and Happiness” says it all about how Jeff is choosing to transcend the horrific shooting of June 12, 2016 and live a life of meaning.
  • "We did not know what type of situation it was. We just thought it was some crazed gunman who shot up the club and was holding people hostage.”
  • “Information was relayed to us that the shooter was saying that he had multiple explosive devices in the club, in cars, and even strapped to hostages.”
  • “There was nobody left.”
Comments made by Orlando Police Department Swat Team Members as shown on
“The Real Story with Maria Elena Salinas” on the Investigator ID channel.

----- The above comments illustrate the pressure, not to mention the confusion experienced by two of the police officers who responded to the shooting. The threat of additional bombs caused their response to be slowed greatly and no doubt resulted in more deaths. Research over the past twenty years and more has shown that EMS, law enforcement, medical personnel, and all who respond to tragic events like the Pulse Nightclub shooting are often the hidden victims.
----- As the men spoke in the interviews with Maria Elena Salinas, their emotions were obviously raw, even though the interviews were conducted months after the tragic event. Hearing their voices break as they spoke of the enormous stress they experienced while trying to stop the shooter and begin the rescue phase, was an indication of how many additional victims the shooting yielded. While the numbers showed a total of 53 injured, experience shows it is impossible to know the actual number of people who are emotionally injured, in addition to those physically hurt in such an event.
----- It is imperative that logistical and other responders receive validation and support for their efforts during and following something as overwhelming as the Pulse Nightclub shooting. It is heartening to know that Jeff and many of those who survived made a point to thank them for their bravery and contribution to lives saved that night, including their own.

----- Note: Jeff and his friends, Angel and V gave their stories in great detail on “The Real Story with Maria Elena Salinas” on Investigator ID . Maria also interviews others on the show who provide additional information about the shooting and events of the tragic evening. 
© 2019 Higher Resources, Inc./Aviem International, Inc.