METAIRIE, La. — Physical therapy started easily enough. Ten minutes on a stationary bike to warm up.
Then, Leo Melendez shut his eyes and clenched his teeth as he struggled through exercises meant to restore mobility to his left leg, the one shattered by a bullet at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub six months ago.
“Let me know when,” said one therapist, pushing on Melendez’s scarred knee while another measured how far the limb could straighten.
“Keep going,” Melendez said, grimacing.
The therapist pushed. Melendez gasped. His forehead was shiny with sweat.
“Go, go,” he said.
The bullet that struck his thigh tore through his knee, and his rebuilt leg is stiff with scar tissue and does not straighten or bend easily. His gait is awkward, and he sometimes uses a cane.
Another bullet hit him in the back of the head, leaving a jagged, staff-shaped scar and causing significant hearing loss. A third bullet went through his foot.
His injuries were so severe, and his recuperation so extensive, that Melendez had to temporarily move in with his parents, back to the town where he spent much of his childhood.
But Melendez, 39, is alive, and he views that as a miracle to be celebrated.
“Hello world!” he wrote on Facebook when he was released from the hospital, six weeks to the day after he was shot. His upbeat attitude gets tested, though, as he struggles to walk and deal with a life that seems put on hold.
“I know, after this, my life will never be the same, but I want to make it as close as possible,” he said. “I’m getting there. I’m getting there.”
He aches to see his 6-year-old daughter Bella, who lives with her mother in Orlando, and is eager to be back at Gucci, the company that has employed him for 17 years. He’s determined to recover as fully as possible and to return to Orlando, hopeful.
That’s why, since September, he has endured 90-minute therapy sessions three days a week.
“I just push myself, push myself,” Melendez said after he’d left Crescent City Orthopedics & Physical Therapy one day last month. “It’s painful, but I’m thinking, in the end, it will be worth it.”
‘You have to be strong’
Melendez moved to Orlando when Gucci’s New Orleans store was closed in 2005 in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and the company offered him a transfer to its store at the Mall of Millenia.
Boyishly handsome, outgoing and personable, Melendez has done well as a sales supervisor at the high-end fashion retailer.
He grew to love his new city, so while he regularly traveled back to Louisiana to see family, Florida came to be home.
On Saturday, June 11, Melendez went to Pulse with his friend and Gucci co-worker, Javier Jorge-Reyes.
When the shooting started, he was momentarily puzzled, wondering if the booming noises and man with a gun were part of a show. Jorge-Reyes, 40, seemed to know better and shouted at him to get down.
“My leg!” Melendez yelled, suddenly in pain. Then, all around him, he heard panicked screams.
“Stay on the floor,” Jorge-Reyes said. “Be quiet. Be quiet.”
Melendez remembers nothing else from the club, or the next three weeks. He was told he fell near one of the club’s exit doors, allowing police to rescue him quickly, even as the gunman remained holed up with hostages for hours in the club’s bathrooms.
On July 3, he woke up in Orlando Regional Medical Center — he regained consciousness days earlier, but did not remember — and asked his mother what happened to his friend.
She was quiet for a moment. “He’s gone,” she said. “You have to be strong.”
He swallowed the news then, but broke down a few weeks later when friends came to visit him with a photo album they’d put together in Jorge-Reyes’ honor. “I’m hoping he’s wherever God wants him to be.”
‘I’m a miracle’
His doctors in Louisiana, looking over his medical records from Orlando, seemed stunned he survived, he said.
“I’m a miracle,” Melendez told them.
“We call it a miracle,” he said, smiling at his mother. “They call it lucky.”
He lost three liters of blood and his heart stopped. Doctors warned his family he might not survive. Even when his condition stabilized, they said it could be months before he could leave or even talk. His vision likely would be limited, his hearing gone.
He was released on July 24, still using a wheelchair, but talking as before, fluent in English and Spanish. His eyesight is good, though he may need glasses to drive again.
Melendez is essentially deaf in his left ear now and uses a hearing aid in the right one, so he turns his better ear toward whomever is speaking. “I’m learning to say, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t hear well.’”
His busted front teeth, which he assumes broke when he fell after taking the shot to the back of the head, have been repaired. Mostly, he’s working on the damaged leg, hoping in time walking will be easier.
A cadre of doctors, including a neurologist and an orthopedist, see him regularly. He’s had several surgeries and may need more. With God’s help, he said, he’s getting better.
“Basically, my life right now is doctors’ visits, therapy,” he said. He misses the “outside world,” his “normal, everyday life.”
But he’s also the positive person he always was, the one who laughs a lot. So he jokes about his big outing to the mall, with his mom, and about how he lost 30 pounds since the shooting, but his friends don’t like his weight-loss methods. “Worst diet ever.”
He often gets philosophical. “I know it is a tragedy. But I try to think to myself that it’s a learning lesson to give me more strength to keep going,” he said.
He and Bella’s mother divorced three years ago, but he saw his little girl often. Now, he uses FaceTime to keep up with the first grader and is looking forward to the week she’ll spend with him at Christmas. He hates the separation.
“It’s just very hard,” he said.
But inside his parents’ brick ranch home, decorated with family photos and a ceramic plaque of the Lord’s Prayer, Melendez gets welcome doses of comfort and love.
His three siblings live near by, as does a grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins. The family, immigrants from Nicaragua, settled here in 1985 when Leonel Jr. was seven.
Just before Thanksgiving, Melendez posted a family photo on Facebook. “Thankful for us,” he wrote.
His mother had remained in Orlando with Melendez until Sept. 9, when he was healed enough to head back to Louisiana. She quit the housekeeping job she held for more than 20 years so that she could be at his side.
“He’s my son. I can’t leave my son,” she said, in July, when he was still hospitalized.
Though home now, Aura Melendez is still not working because she needs to be available to shuttle her oldest child to all his medical appointments.
‘There’s still humanity’
Melendez has been touched and sometimes overwhelmed by the support he’s received, from friends, from Gucci and from thousands of strangers, who have sent kind messages and donated money to him and other Pulse victims.
The donations have helped Melendez pay off bills and keep up his apartment in Orlando’s MetroWest neighborhood and will assist him in the months ahead, especially if he cannot quickly return to work.
The hospital wrote off its tab for his care, which hit nearly $900,000, he said. His company has kept up his health insurance, put him on disability pay and told him he has a position, whenever he can return.
“However crazy this world is, there are still people who care for others,” he said. “There’s still humanity out there.”
When an FBI agent came to interview him, wondering if he had any information about the shooter, Melendez had nothing to share. He’d never seen the man before that June day and gives little thought to him now.
“To me, he was a sick person who was not in his right mind,” he said. Nothing else, he added, explains the killing of 49 “innocent souls.”
Melendez did have his own question for the FBI, however: Had they found his iPhone?
The FBI gathered more then 100 cell phones from Pulse that day, the agent told him, so identifying his might be tricky.
But Melendez had a distinct phone case, one he’d bought months earlier because he loved the saying printed above a setting sun.
The agent looked stunned as he described it. That phone had stood out. They all knew it; they’d all wondered if its owner had perished or survived.
The FBI returned the phone, but the case Melendez loved was smeared with dried blood. He threw it out.
A friend found a duplicate, however, and sent it to him, its message now all the more fitting.
“What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.”
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