More than a year and a half after the Pulse massacre, first responders still struggle with the trauma 

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Delgado started off the night of June 11 working his regular patrol as an officer with the Eatonville Police Department, a small agency for a town of 2,000. Around 2 a.m. on June 12, Delgado got an alert from Orange County dispatchers that Orlando police officers needed help at a nightclub called Pulse. Usually, when Eatonville officers respond to these dispatches, they're turned back immediately because officers closer by have responded. But this time, nobody told Delgado to turn back as he flew down an empty Interstate 4 at more than 100 miles per hour, lights and sirens blazing.

When Delgado got off on Anderson Street, he heard through the radio, "Active shooter inside club Pulse. Multiple casualties down," and raced toward Kaley Street and Orange Avenue. When he got to Pulse, two law enforcement officers told him the shooter was still inside – then came the shots, one after another, followed by an avalanche of people trying to escape in a screaming chaos as Delgado and other officers tried to break their way in.

Inside the club's darkness, he saw people on the ground and yelled at them, "Get up! Get up! The police are here!" But nobody moved.

Then there was just silence, for a long time. Because he was so far out of range from his Apopka dispatcher, Delgado had no communication other than the information he was getting from fellow officers – also unlike them, he only had a handgun to defend himself and no protective vest.

From the dance floor, they started hearing cellphones – a perpetual ring, ring, ring of desperate calls and text messages that would never be answered. A vibrating iPhone near Delgado's feet floated away on a big pool of blood.

Officers knew the gunman had threatened to blow up hostages trapped in the bathrooms after pledging allegiance to ISIS during calls with dispatchers. But they refused to leave if they could save more people. Delgado and other officers inside Pulse cleared people from the bathrooms and extracted people from the dance floor who looked alive. Then, for what felt like an eternity, Delgado and other officers stayed on the main floor, guns out, watching for the shooter.

"I memorized where the bodies were lying," he says. "I know how many beer bottles were on the bar, the casings on the floor. I just keep looking at the bodies and the walls, bodies and the walls. The disco light was still spinning. I remember all that because I was in there for so damn long."

First responders breached the bathroom's outside wall with an armored car around 5 a.m. and engaged in a fatal shootout with the gunman. Delgado's family slept through the shooting, but by the time he got home, national media had descended on Orlando. He did some television interviews, and his kids thought he was a rock star. Het got thank you cards from around the world – even one from Australia. Everyone called him a "hero."

But mostly, he felt numb. It wasn't until he tried to go back to work during the Fourth of July weekend that he realized he had a problem. The fireworks took him back to the explosions of that night.

"I couldn't say, 'I'm not ready to be at work yet,'" Delgado says. "I'm a police officer, and we have the whole military mentality of 'suck it up and do your job no matter what.' And I tell you – I tried. I really tried. I tried with everything I had, and this was just overpowering me."

Delgado didn't like going out anymore – people bickering in restaurants or a lot of noise bothered him, so he confined himself at home. The nightmares didn't let him sleep. He was hypervigilant, "like in police mode times 100," he says. He knew suicide statistics among veterans with PTSD and feared his condition getting any worse. He told his supervisors he needed help. They told him to call the employee assistance program number on the back of his insurance card. (EAPs offer free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling and referrals to employees dealing with emotional stress, according to the federal Office of Personnel Management.) Delgado says he was offered three visits to speak to somebody – but he knew at that point that he needed a professional who specialized in trauma.

The Eatonville Police Department then offered him the chance to go for 10 weeks to UCF Restores, a clinical research center at the University of Central Florida dedicated to the study of anxiety, trauma and PTSD. Clinic director Deborah Beidel says the free program was created for military veterans but has since expanded to include first responders, Pulse survivors and victims of sexual assault. One of the protocols offered is exposure therapy, a type of treatment that's supposed to reduce anxiety by subjecting people to their traumatic situation for a long period of time. Veterans who attend this therapy use virtual reality headsets and even scent machines to re-create experiences they had in the military. The same thing doesn't exist for first responders yet, but Beidel says her team is working on developing a similar program that's relevant to this group – the clinic has already treated or assessed about 40 Pulse first responders.

Beidel says most people who experience a traumatic event will have a short-term reaction to it, like trouble sleeping or eating and feeling anxious. But for a small percentage of people, those reactions don't go away – they intensify and develop into PTSD. The most common patterns include inability to sleep, nightmares, anxiety, depression, social isolation and hyperarousal.

"I think it is sometimes difficult for people to understand post-traumatic stress disorder if they haven't been through it," she says. "Not everyone will have the same reaction at the same time."

Delgado says his exposure therapy involved recounting his entire experience at Pulse for hours until his anxiety was at a minimal level. Once, the clinicians tried to take him near Pulse as part of his therapy, but he broke down on the ground.

"Their main goal is to get you desensitized," he says. "I understand where they wanted to get me to, but that journey was hell for me. ... With PTSD, there's no magical pill. There's not something you can take, and you're going to be OK."

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