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Pulse survivor: How I learned to live again through puppy therapy

Pulse survivor: How I learned to live again through puppy therapy

Pulse survivor Laura Vargas with her dog Walter, who also had to learn to walk again | Photo: Supplied / Laura Vargas

A Pulse survivor has revealed how she learned to live again through puppy therapy.

Laura Vargas was shot twice in what was the deadliest mass shooting in US history at the time.

49 people were killed by an armed gunman at LGBTI nightclub Pulse in Orlando, Florida, on 12 June 2016.

Her close friend, Lewis, was immediately killed in the shooting.

Laura and Brandy at the Lincoln road at Miami Beach Pride's Pulse tribute | Photo: Supplied / Laura Vargas

After a lengthy hospital stay dealing with nerve damage, it damaged Vargas’ ability to walk.

But it was the mental damage, as she was conscious during the entire experience, that did the most lasting damage.

Vargas was also outed to her Catholic family, through her press, who didn’t know she was gay.

Laura and Lewis’s choice to go to Pulse was a last minute decision

Though she was born and raised in Miami, her family’s deeply Catholic roots are in Columbia, where many of them live.

Studying at the School of Physical Therapy, she moved to Orlando in 2014. She worked for Universal for a year, before going back to Miami. This is where she met her best friend, Lewis.

But she wasn’t out to her family. So when her mom called her at the hospital, not only did they have to navigate Laura being a victim in a mass murder, she had to come out.

And yet, this is where one of Vargas’ incredible aptitude for compassion shines through. Instead of fury at having her coming out stolen from her:

‘I was so emotionally drained by it, he probably did me a favor. My family are Catholic, so they had to comprehend: Laura’s hurt, she’s also gay and she’s been hurt – because she is gay.

‘But there was so much tragedy, they couldn’t judge and so they focused on “is she OK?”‘

Laura and supportive girlfriend Brandy | Photo: Supplied / Laura Vargas

Puppy therapy was a turning point in her recovery 

Anyone who faces a life-changing illness or injury will know recovery takes time. And it involves setbacks.

‘I was having a really bad day, and I was told I’d have to wait longer to come off IV fluids and go onto solid food. And my patience had worn thin. So I cursed up a storm and sent everyone away.’

But two weeks after this, Vargas had a breakthrough.

A knock at the door came and she noticed two little paws were at the door.

Laura and girlfriend Brandy with one to the dogs they look after at Barks and Leashes | Photo: Supplied / Laura Vargas

For the coming weeks, she’d have puppy therapy in the hospital, giving her life and strength to work through the nerve damage the shooting had left her with.

Friends and family rallied around her, including her new girlfriend Brandy.

But while she recovered, the world tried to grapple with what hate could have consumed anyone to cause so much pain.

Laura and Brandy at the Lincoln road at Miami Beach Pride's Pulse tribute | Photo: Supplied / Laura Vargas

Shot twice, and still here

The duo re-evaluated their lives in the wake of the attack. They quit their office jobs and set up a dog walking business inspired by Laura’s dog therapy in the hospital.

And it’s clear Vargas is still just beginning to come to terms with that night.

‘Sometimes I turn to Brandy and say “Can you believe I was shot twice and I’m still here?”’