Luis Ruiz, a survivor of the Pulse nightclub shooting and recipient of assistance from Catholic Charities, lays in a hospital bed following the mass shooting June 12, 2016. In the center, a few weeks after the attack, Ruiz visits a makeshift shrine in front of the Dr. Phillips Center in downtown Orlando. In the far right photo, a smiling Ruiz stands with his sister at the end of May 2017. (COURTESY PHOTOS)

By Jean Gonzalez, The Florida Catholic, June 12, 2017

Life has certainly changed for Luis Ruiz in the past year.

There have been wonderful changes, especially in finding closer relationships with his family and attending Full Sail University in Orlando in hopes of earning a film degree.

But the year has not been without challenges. There have been financial struggles, but even more devastating the physical and emotional healing.

And mourning. The mourning still continues.

Ruiz was among the hundreds of people at Pulse nightclub at the early morning hours of June 12. During the melee, Ruiz ran outside toward the back of the nightclub. He and another man pushed down a fence, allowing others to escape. However, Ruiz collapsed from the push of the crowd.

“I fell on the floor and heard people screaming. Everybody ended up trampling over me. I was bruised and in pain. I couldn’t get up,” Ruiz recalled. “I called my mom and told her, ‘I love you guys. I’m sorry.’ She could hear the gunshots and she flipped out. I could hear her tell my family, ’They’re going to kill my son.’”

The call died and Ruiz tried to get up.

“This guy comes to me out of nowhere. He picked me up and took me all way down to the 7-11 across the street,” Ruiz recalled. “He told me, ‘We have to pray.’”

Although in shock, Ruiz did pray with the man. But in all the commotion Ruiz lost track of him and never saw him again. “I looked for him. He was my hero. I would have been stuck there.”

Ruiz survived, but many of his friends did not. The evening of Sunday, June 11 started as a belated birthday celebration for the then 33-year-old. A week prior, Ruiz ran into a couple who were longtime friends who suggested a birthday gathering at Ruiz’s house. Some 20 people gathered at Ruiz’s house. All of them were familiar with Pulse as a great place to gather for music and dancing. The crew decided to move the party there.

“We all ended up going. Twenty of us went to the club, but only five of us left,” Ruiz recalled. “And the thing was, being at Pulse that night, it was like a homecoming to me. There were a lot of people there that I hadn’t seen for so long. I remember one guy came up to me and picked me up (in a bear hug). Thinking about it now, It was like a reunion and a farewell all in the same night.”

That is a sobering reality that Ruiz has carried with him for the past year and will for the rest of his life. Marking the first anniversary of the worst mass shooting on U.S. soil is a difficult one for Ruiz, who remembers each of his friends killed there. But the young man who turned 34 June 10 has worked to recall his survival as a blessing.

“I survived because I believe God still had a purpose for me,” Ruiz said. “My life really did change after Pulse. I am a different person now. Life is really a blessing. … I hate that I lost so many friends, but at the same time I know these beautiful guys are all in heaven. My life has changed, but do hate the fact that it took this tragedy to change my life.”

Ruiz’s relationship with his immediate family had been strained. Yet, his parents and sister flew from Texas to Florida to visit Ruiz as he recovered in the hospital. Once he was out, Ruiz wanted to give back to the community that embraced victims and their families.

“Orlando has been amazing. I couldn’t believe how supportive the whole community has been,” he said. “Orlando has been so strong through all this.”

Three weeks after the event, Ruiz and his sister volunteered with One Heart for Women and Children in Orlando to feed the homeless locally. And he repeated that act on the anniversary weekend of the shooting. Ruiz said helping others helps him in his recovery, and so has a good support group. He said when he sees fellow survivors it is a mixture of appreciation and melancholy because it an emotional roller coaster being in such a brotherhood/sisterhood.

“I still have people (from support groups and organizations) who call from time to time. And even after a year later, we (survivors) need that and know they are still there for us. I do know some people who don’t have that support and they are not doing well,” Ruiz said. “There are still times when I start crying and replaying that event. Not long ago I heard a long bang and it just made me look around and make sure surroundings were OK. I look for exit doors when I go out.”

One place Ruiz found support was at Catholic Charities. Although not Catholic himself, Ruiz said the organization offered open arms. He praised the staff of Catholic Charities for showing him love and helping him through applications processes to gain assistance with his finances.

“It gave me a whole new perspective about the Catholic Church. (The staff) showed me and other victims how we could all come together as one. No matter what our background was they said, ‘We are still going to help you. We love you,’” Ruiz said.

It is that love and support that gets Ruiz through his days, which he reiterated again are constant blessings. He looks forward to his family joining him in Orlando not just for a visit but to establish residency. For Ruiz, he is looking forward to living a life with more acceptance and support than he had faced before the Pulse nightclub tragedy.

“There is so much hurt and pain and rejection in this world. It was tough for me, growing up. But after everything that has happened to see Orlando show so much love and support. Words cannot explain,” Ruiz said. “I look forward to pouring love and support back into the community any way I can. And take time to remember. Remember all those beautiful people I lost.”