ORLANDO, Fla. (WOFL FOX 35) - When we call police and firefighters for help, they come to the rescue. But some officers are finding the State of Florida isn’t returning the favor when it comes to their mental health.
It’s a peculiarity in the law that has existed for years, but it’s coming to light in the aftermath of the June 2016 mass murder at Pulse Nightclub.
"You ask us to do what we do, you know? And we do it. We see it. And then we try to live our normal lives,” Orlando Police Department officer Gerry Realin said through tears.
Life hasn’t been normal for Realin since the nightclub massacre. After a shooter opened fire, killing 49 people and wounding dozens more, SWAT rushed in, firefighters and paramedics rescued the wounded, and a team of officers went in to help identify the dead and carefully remove their bodies. Realin was on that team and what he saw still haunts him.
His wife, Jessica Realin, has been there through sleepless nights, recalling one night when, “he started to scream at the top of the top of his lungs and he grabbed my wrist so hard I thought he was going to snap it."
The father of two was diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. His doctor says no work. Florida law says that means no pay. Realin’s burned through all his sick time and vacation time.
"I'm just trying to get better. I just want the doctors and the therapists that I need...that I've been told I need, but I also need my family to be taken care of,” he said.
Florida is like most states in that first responders get workers compensation for physical injuries, but not for job-related psychological issues.
"I knew from day one that the first responders were going to be hung out to dry [after the tragedy at Pulse],” said Maitland-based attorney Paolo Longo.
Long has handled workers comp claims for first responders for almost 20 years. He said he’s working with Realin and several others who worked the scene at the nightclub. Longo said his firm currently has about 100 clients across the state with PTSD. He’s seen them make the same decision over and over again.
"If they have a choice between getting help and getting paid, they're always going to choose getting paid,” Longo said.
The International Association of Firefighters calls untreated PTSD a “hidden health hazard.” The union cites a Florida State University study that says nearly half of participants say they’ve thought about suicide, nearly 20 percent had suicide plans and more than 15 percent had tried to take their own life.
"Even though we're the fixers, sometimes we need help, too,” said Orlando firefighter Jeff Orrange.
Orrange leads a peer support team that reaches out to co-workers who are struggling with mental health issues. He said it doesn’t take a national tragedy to trigger PTSD.
"Anything from a house fire with people inside that couldn't get out...to a child with an allergic reaction that isn't breathing. That over time can build up,” he said.
Realin is seeing counselors for his PTSD.
“A lot of time now he's fatigued, he's on a lot of different medications to help him with depression and sleep,” Jessica Realin said.
They speak up because they know there are other officers who are struggling.
“People need to support them,” Gerry Realin said.
The Realins hope they can convince lawmakers to make a change. Although the law doesn’t require it, the Orlando Police Department is paying Realin while he gets treatment for PTSD. He is currently on paid administrative leave.