How one Pulse shooting survivor found love, learned to live again after tragedy

(NEW YORK) — Five years after the shooting at Pulse nightclub that claimed 49 lives, Patience Murray still struggles physically and mentally with what happened that night.

“There will never be a point where I’m done learning or done healing,” she said. “And I just have to accept that.”

In the summer of 2016, the then-20-year-old had just wrapped up her sophomore year at New York University. She was studying media culture and communications and had landed her dream internship at a local TV station in her hometown of Philadelphia.

Patience met her best friend, Tiara Parker, while doing a media project together in high school. Due to family issues, she decided to stay with Parker’s family while she completed her internship.

“I felt like I was on top of the world that summer,” she said. “I was super vibrant and excited about life.”

She was even more excited when Parker’s family invited her on their summer vacation to spend a week in Orlando, Florida. When they arrived in Orlando in the middle of June 2016, Patience, Parker and Parker’s 18-year-old cousin, Akyra Murray, searched for places to have a girl’s night to kick off the trip.

Their first Google search led them to Pulse nightclub, which would become the site of the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history at the time.

Girl’s night turns to tragedy

Patience, Parker and Akyra Murray danced at Pulse nightclub into the early morning hours of June 12, 2016.

Patience had only met her best friend’s cousin, Akyra, a handful of times prior to the Orlando trip but instantly felt a special connection to her.

“I was having fun that night dancing together and stuff, realizing this girl, we’re definitely about to be best friends,” she said. “Picture that ultimate girl’s night out. Super fun, laughed the whole time, made a bunch of friends, felt completely comfortable, and had so much fun the entire night.”

The girls were getting ready to order an Uber and head back to their vacation home when they heard a loud noise coming from the next room.

“We’re still happy, like we’re still in that in that mind frame, so switching so fast to try and to figure out what that noise is, that’s where we’re kind of like in shock,” Patience shared, while reflecting on their mindset that night. “Like we didn’t really think that these are gunshots going off in that moment.”

Patience and Akyra Murray instantly started moving backward and out the back door of the nightclub. Parker ran toward the bar. When the two realized Parker was still inside, they ran back into the nightclub and all three of them followed a group that was running into the bathroom to hide.

“We found a handicapped bathroom stall in the back. It had about 20 people in the stall already. We could still hear gunshots going off people screaming. We could see people reacting and we can feel ourselves being terrified. But at the same time there was no clarity on what was truly going on,” Patience said.

She said the gunman, later identified as Omar Mateen, entered the bathroom where they were hiding.

“It became shockingly clear that this was an actual life-or-death situation,” Patience said. “He just came in guns blazing into the bathroom, firing at everything, the bathroom stalls, the walls, everything was flying everywhere.”

Patience said Mateen stopped his shooting rampage, yelling that his gun had jammed. After he left the bathroom, she looked down and noticed a hole the size of a quarter in her right leg.

Over the next three hours, Mateen would leave and enter the bathroom multiple times. Patience said he spoke to the hostages and asked them questions. He warned them to not call 911 while making several phone calls to 911 himself pledging his allegiance to the Islamic State.

I was completely hopeless. I was just fearful of the most gruesome death ever.

“I would feel Tiara tap my leg, just making sure that I was still with her. And I would raise my hand a little, just to let her know that I’m still alive,” Patience said. “It was the longest three hours in my entire life. By the end of it I was just praying to God asking him to take the soul out of my body at this point, because if this was the way that my story was going to end, I just didn’t want to experience any more pain. I didn’t want to get shot again.”

“I was completely hopeless,” she said. “I was just fearful of the most gruesome death ever.”

She says after hours of being held hostage, she began to hear movement outside and eventually police yelled at them to move away from the walls. The shooter then ran into the bathroom stall with the hostages and began shooting again.

“Right then the police busted through the wall,” Patience said. “I truly believe that…the next bullet was intended for me. But all I knew was at the nick of time I was saved.”

The weight of survival

Patience said when the police entered the bathroom stall she was unable to walk, and was grabbed under her armpits and dragged through the grass into a pickup truck. From the truck, they transferred her to an ambulance.

“The pain of being yanked out of a wall and then dragged through a bumpy grass with mounds and things and then just thrown on the back of a truck … that was excruciating,” she said. “My leg was ripping apart.”

The bullet that struck Patience entered her femur and shattered it. A bullet had also grazed her left leg, leaving a flesh wound that she did not notice until she was in the ambulance. When she arrived at the hospital, she was immediately rushed into surgery.

In the days following the procedure, visitors were in and out of Patience’s room. One of those visitors was Akyra Murray’s mother, who informed her that her 18-year-old daughter did not make it out of the nightclub alive.

“I instantly thought about the moment we made it outside. I felt like I was responsible in that situation…. I started blaming myself in a lot of different ways,” she said, adding that in the dark days that followed the shooting, she felt like she didn’t deserve to exist.

Patience channeled her struggles with her survivor’s guilt into a poem, which she read at a press conference at the hospital following the shooting, called, “The guilt of feeling grateful to be alive is heavy.”

“Knowing that people just that I smiled at, people that I waved to, people that I danced with that night that are no longer on this Earth … that was a shocking revelation for me,” she said. “To realize that I’m still here and I was in the same situation as other people, I was in the same bathroom stalls, I heard the same voice, I heard the same gunshots, I experienced the same type of wounds and somehow I’m still here.”

Finding love through loss

Patience went back to Philadelphia after spending a week in the hospital and began extensive therapy on her right leg. While working to physically heal, she also worked to mentally heal from the trauma. She began to confide in Akyra Murray’s brother, Alex, whom she met in her hospital room in the days that followed the shooting.

“It was one of those movie moments,” she said. “It felt prophetic; in a way it felt like destiny, it felt like he was supposed to be there in that moment. And I was supposed to be there in that moment, even though we were both experiencing so much pain. And in that moment, you could feel something budding — like something more positive.”

Alex Murray would often visit Patience at his cousin Tiara Parker’s house, where she was staying for the summer. He would tell her stories about his late sister Akyra, and soon their friendship blossomed into something more.

“During that time, that sensitive time, it seemed very selfish and insensitive to have love or to find love at a time like this when everybody’s hurting,” she said. “So it was just a fine line that we were dancing with. I felt like as we were realizing that, well, I realized sooner than he did that I loved him.”

“Alex is really indescribable. … I think within the first few moments of talking to Alex, you’ll feel his heart, you’ll feel his soul,” Patience said. “Every connection that he makes with somebody, he’s intentional about it, he’s pure about it. And that’s the type of person you never forget.”

Patience went back to New York City for her junior year of college and the two kept in touch, dating on and off while working on themselves following the tragedy. When she graduated from NYU, she moved down to Florida where Alex Murray lived — a couple of hours away from where the tragedy that brought them together occurred. Shortly after, Murray proposed on the court at a Miami Heat basketball game.

Months later, the two got married on the field of their hometown team: the Philadelphia Eagles. They began their ceremony honoring their loved ones, including Alex’s late sister Akyra.

“It was about acknowledging them and honoring them for just being our angels and guiding us to this moment,” she said. “Because obviously it was a miracle.”

While destiny brought them together, Patience doesn’t equate that to the reason Pulse happened in her own life.

“The reason [Pulse happened] is still defining itself. Because it’s too big. It’s just too big of an experience to even simplify it to just being me, Alex, finding love,” she said. “Because it’s 49 different souls and 49 different journeys and life paths that were abruptly stopped. … Just to say that, you know, this is only about us. It’s bigger than us. It’s way bigger than us. And I feel like we’re still figuring out the full scope of why every day.”

“We pray together every day. We don’t miss it. That anchors us together,” she said.

How Pulse changed her

Five years after the shooting at Pulse, Patience still struggles physically and mentally with what happened to her that night.

During her physical recovery process, Patience had relearn how to walk through extensive therapy due to her shattered femur.

“I realized that there was so much pain in my right leg that I really didn’t think that I was ever going to get better,” she said. “It was just so disappointing that this is the life that I was living at this age. You look, especially with social media, you see what everybody else is doing. Your friends, they’re young, they’re vibrant, they have great knees, and they’re like running around, and they’re doing dancing. … The fact that I had to work so hard at something that I didn’t cause … I didn’t shoot myself … I didn’t ask for this, I didn’t ask for any of this.”

She set a goal for herself that 10 months after the shooting, on her 21st birthday, she would be able to wear high heels. After months of hard work, she did. But five years later, she is still restricted from everyday things, like running on a treadmill, due to her leg injury.

In addition to her physical injuries, she has had to deal with survivor’s guilt, anxiety and PTSD since the shooting.

She recalls waking up from nightmares about being in the bathroom stall at Pulse. She once walked into a public bathroom that she says looked similar to where the incident happened and had a “serious moment.”

“I felt my body changing,” she said. “I had physiological response to the image that I was seeing.”

Now she also feels more anxiety doing day-to-day activities.

“I didn’t realize how much I was actually living life before and actually enjoying every moment. I was so free, so present in everything I was doing,” she said. “Now, I am always in my head. … I was used to feeling in control of my reality. … Now, I feel like I’m constantly aware of how much anxiety I have. And sometimes that does make me feel like, ‘Oh my god, am I actually healing?’ I have this consciousness with myself now that I can correct those feelings in that energy to redirect it to something more positive.”

She said she gets anxious when going out with her husband or her friends and is always thinking about the “what if.”

“I always think about that night. I always think about the possibilities, think can this happen again? Or is this my biggest painful moment and then I don’t have to experience any more pain?” she said. “I don’t know if I’m just supposed to be constantly going through tumultuous things. I don’t know so I live in that fear a lot of the times.”

“Being conscious of the fact that I’m living in that fear is something that’s helping me combat it,” she added. “I was spiraling out of control because I wasn’t conscious of how this experience changed me. I felt like I needed a miracle and when I became more conscious of needing that, that’s when I was actually able to heal.”

Learning to live with pain

While Patience still struggles with trauma of surviving the Pulse shooting, she says she has leaned on her faith to help to cope with her new reality.

“When you go through something like that it makes you question God,” she said. “I was so lost during that time. And I just didn’t really have faith, honestly. And I think my faith is just starting to really like come back strong … just believing that I am special and believing that I serve a God who made me so special.”

“The first line of my poem, ‘The guilt of feeling grateful to be alive is heavy,’ I don’t feel heavy anymore,” she said. “I feel grateful.”

Having a support system and finding community has also helped her live with the trauma and grief.

“We have this natural ability, I feel like when we go through really painful things, to want to isolate ourselves,” she said. “Get a good support team around you and connect with people who get it, connect with people who understand the gravity of what you went through.”

One of the ways she does this is through social media. She belongs to several Facebook groups dedicated to people who were impacted by Pulse – fellow survivors and family members of those that were lost in the shooting.

“It is very helpful just for someone to understand the gravity of what you experienced, and to not judge that,” she explained. “And just to allow you to say what you want to say, because they get it.”

Since the shooting, Patience Murray wrote a book about her experience at Pulse, titled “Survive Then Live.” She married her husband and is currently working on a motion picture on her experience at Pulse as well as playing an active role in the Orlando memorial site that will honor the victims.

“I understand now that I have permission to evolve; I have permission to just be happy for my life. And I don’t have to feel guilty about having a life and having this life,” she said.

“As much as we’d like to be in control of our destiny, we aren’t. We can’t control what happens. The only thing we can control is how we respond to life,” she continued. “Just because life dealt you some bad cards, it doesn’t mean you can’t reshuffle them.”

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