Orlando shooting survivor fights to get life 'back to normal'

Bryan Caraballo was shot twice in the abdomen and admitted to the hospital in critical condition during the June 12 Pulse nightclub shooting

By Leslie Postal
The Orlando Sentinel

ORLANDO, Fla. — With the wound in his belly closed, Bryan Caraballo went to work last week for the first time in nearly four months. He was staggered by the number of emails stuffed in his inbox, overwhelmed by the good wishes of co-workers and buoyed by his eagerness to be back.

"I feel better if I go back to work. Work and family, back in my normal routine," he said. "That's my goal, basically getting back to normal."

But for the 25-year-old survivor of the June 12 shooting at Pulse nightclub — shot twice in the abdomen and admitted to the hospital in critical condition — normal and routine remain works in progress.

He lost two friends that night. He doesn't like to be alone anymore. Physically he has nearly recovered, but Caraballo said his feelings of sadness and unease sometimes seem more acute now than they did right after a gunman opened fire in the club, killing 49 people and wounding more than 50 others.

Whenever he is in public, he is wary, wondering how he'd escape if someone else with a gun started shooting. His anxious and suspicious thoughts annoy him but still intrude.

"I look at everybody, I look what they have in their pockets. It happens everywhere."

At the mall recently with his mother and niece, he felt panicky when the pair went to the restroom. "The whole Pulse thing started running through my mind. If it happens here, where can I run to?" he thought.

"As more time passed by, I feel like emotionally I felt worse," he said. "I guess I'm waking up from everything."

Still, Caraballo, who was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Orlando when he was in fifth grade, said he remains determined to be the person he was -- a happy young man with plans for his future, enjoying his friends and delighting in his "big, big family."

Returning to his job at Express Scripts, a mail-order pharmacy company, seemed a big step toward normalcy. He'd had enough of sitting around watching Netflix and thinking about what had happened.

"I feel like he's going to overcome it, and he's not going to let that overcome him," said his sister Crystal Caraballo, who lives in Kissimmee.

That was true even that terrible Sunday morning when she and another sister found him at Orlando Regional Medical Center.

Almost as soon as he came to after surgery, her brother started joking and as his hospital room filled with family -- he's the seventh of eight siblings and most of his family is now in Central Florida -- he greeted everyone with a smile, she said.

"He's hurt, but he still sees the light, he still sees the positive out of everything," she added.

Before the shooting, Caraballo was looking forward to an interview in New York with JetBlue scheduled for the week of June 13. The 2010 graduate of Orange County's Freedom High School had plans to become a flight attendant and, maybe someday, to return to school to become a nurse.

He never made that trip to New York. Now he thinks that after his own wounds heal, he may pursue nursing.

The gunshots to his gut tore up his intestines, and he needed two surgeries while in the hospital and then an out-patient procedure in late July to remove a bullet lodged in his elbow. He still faces a final surgery, most likely in March.

He never saw the shooter only heard the blasts from his gun. Then he felt heat spreading out from his belly, and he went down.

On the floor, he thought of his family, which includes 19 nieces and nephews he wants to watch grow up. "I started praying. I started asking God for strength," he said.

Somehow, he got himself up, outside to the club's patio and then over a low fence. He was on the ground, bleeding and losing consciousness, when firefighters from the station a few doors down found him.

In the hospital, when friends visited, he asked repeatedly about Amanda Alvear and Mercedes Flores. He'd been with both of them that night and was puzzled they hadn't come to see him. Initially, no one wanted to tell him the young women had perished in the shooting. He broke down when he finally heard the news.

Caraballo said he is grateful he survived and most grateful his mother was spared the horror that confronted so many other parents that day. He appreciated the financial donations, which have covered his bills while he was out of work, the hospital announcing all Pulse patient care would be free, and his employer keeping his job open for him.

Now there is just the day-to-day work of reclaiming a sense of normalcy. He tries to balance talking about what happened with his determination not to make his family too sad or at gatherings, such as a cousin's upcoming quinceanera, have them focus too much on him.

But the shootings still intrude, sometimes unexpectedly. Two weeks ago, the FBI returned his confiscated cell phone, which had been in his pocket that night. He counted 67 unread text messages from June 12.

In one, his mother pleaded, "Call me, please," and in others family and friends asked, "Are you safe?"

He decided he couldn't read them all.

Until that June weekend, Pulse was where he and friends went many Saturday nights; It was a place to dance, to laugh, to have fun.

"I would never thought in a million years that Pulse would be all over the news, and it would be basically part of history," he said.

He still cannot comprehend why the gunman shot up that Orlando club.

"I just feel like that person had hate and insecurities about himself, and he just wanted everybody to feel what he felt," Caraballo said. "Little did he know we're way stronger than that."

Copyright 2016 The Orlando Sentinel 

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