Memories of Horror: How One Doctor Remembers Pulse (Video/Audio)

By Rick Jervis , USA TODAY

Michael Cheatham is reminded of that June 12 morning nearly every day: in the boarded-up nightclub he passes on his way to work, in the lectures he gives to other doctors about the incident, in the frequent therapy sessions he attends with other hospital staffers.

It’s been six months since gunman Omar Mateen opened fire inside the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, killing 49 patrons and injuring 53 others in one of the deadliest shooting sprees in U.S. history. Mateen was shot and killed by police after a three-hour standoff.

(On an ordinary night, one trauma surgeon stands duty at Orlando Regional Medical Center, primed for the regular churn of car accident victims and the occasional gunshot wound or stabbing. Courtesy of USA TODAY and YouTube)

“You can never, ever be prepared for what we saw that night,” Cheatham, 53, said. “It’s a little difficult for us to put it behind us.”

Orlando as a community has both moved on from that early June morning, when the first frantic 911 calls of the attack started pouring in, and held tight to the memory of that day.

(The Orange County Sheriff’s Office released more than two hours of body cam footage from the Pulse nightclub shooting, though none appears to portray extensive portions of the interior where Omar Mateen’s shooting spree left 49 dead and dozens injured. Courtesy of USA TODAY)

After initial plans to turn Pulse into a permanent memorial, the club’s owners recently decided to keep the LGBT club. Club owners plan to host a memorial there Monday honoring the victims.

Cheatham spent 36 hours in the hospital’s trauma center after the attack, stabilizing bleeding victims, mending bodies torn by high-velocity rifle rounds and operating on victim after victim. In all, hospital staff performed 76 operations on 35 survivors of the shooting.

(Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people and wounded 53 others in an Orlando nightclub, pledged allegiance to the Islamic State and referenced Tamerlan Tsarnaev when he called 911. Courtesy of the Boston Herald and YouTube)

Based in a large, tourist city prone to the occasional hurricane, hospital staff had trained repeatedly for how to deal with a mass casualty from a natural disaster, which really paid off the night of the shooting, Cheatham said.

But the event still presented new challenges, such as how to deal with the volume of family members seeking information about their injured loved ones.

The incident sparked widespread national interest from other hospitals hoping to learn how to deal with such an event. At least once a week, Cheatham or someone from his staff visits a hospital somewhere in the USA and gives a presentation on what they went through and lessons learned.

President Obama and Vice President Biden pause at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Artsafter laying flowers for the victims of the Orlando mass shooting. (Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House Photo)
President Obama and Vice President Biden pause at the Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Artsafter laying flowers for the victims of the Orlando mass shooting. (Photo Credit: Pete Souza, White House Photo)

At a recent presentation, after Cheatham had detailed the nature of the wounds he treated and the relentless volume of victims, a colleague from Orlando Regional who was traveling with him pulled him aside and said he had no idea he had faced such a traumatic experience.

“We’re pretty much reliving that morning on a weekly basis,” Cheatham said. “But for many hospitals, this was a wake-up call. They needed to plan better.”

Cheatham has also traveled to Washington several times to meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill and urge them to ease congressional restrictions on gun research.

For years, Congress has restricted funding for gun-violence research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Just as more research on car crashes helped improve car safety and the treatment of car crash injuries, more studies on gun deaths could help Cheatham and others better react to gunshot victims, he said.

“The data is very limited,” he said. “There is a tremendous number of suicides every year because of guns, and we don’t have good data.”

For now, Cheatham deals with the daily reminders of that fateful morning. His drive to work takes him up South Orange Avenue and past the Pulse nightclub, now boarded up and lined with colorful murals commemorating the victims. He keeps a small bleeding-control kit (a tourniquet and bandages) clipped to his belt wherever he goes, just in case.

Cheatham says he still attends counseling sessions with other staffers offered at the hospital. Mostly, he thanks the higher power that helped him and his staff save so many lives that morning.

“God was with us that day,” he said. “There were way too many miracles to think that there was not a higher power helping us.”

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