Juan José Cufiño Rodriguez promised to fly a thousand miles to say the things he left unsaid when gunfire tore him apart from his lover.
The 31-year-old from Bogotá, Colombia, was on a trip through the United States last year when he met Jean Carlos Nieves Rodriguez, 27, and his three friends in Miami. The pair immediately clicked. He traveled to Nebraska and Denver and then came back down to Orlando to spend time with Jean Carlos, his mother and his group of friends.
"They were really good friends, you know, just those type of people that leave their mark on your life and you know they're going to be a friend for life," he says in Spanish. "Jean Carlos was an exceptional person – a good friend, a good son and just a good human being."
They'd only been together for three months, but the two men were deeply in love. He was supposed to leave back home to Colombia in June, but he thought maybe if he could fix his affairs in his home country, he could come back to marry Jean Carlos.
Two days before he was set to fly out, Cufiño Rodriguez joined Jean Carlos and his friend to celebrate a friend's birthday at Pulse. In a picture taken early that night, Cufiño Rodriguez is smiling slightly, his big, brown eyes full of promise while Jean Carlos stands behind him, cheesing hard.
It was the last time they saw each other.
Hours later, Cufiño Rodriguez was shot four times. He remembers screaming at the gunman, "Why are you doing this?" before everything went black. He woke up three months later from an induced coma. Doctors told him he was paralyzed from the waist down. Jean Carlos and his friends were killed in the massacre.
"I was so disoriented when I woke up," he says. "I remember asking, 'What happened to me?' I couldn't speak very well because I had a tracheotomy. I had suffered pneumonia while I was in the coma, so I was fully intubated. Because of the shooting, my lungs had filled with blood and they had also done 26 to 27 surgeries on my body. I was very weak."
He was the last Pulse survivor to be released from ORMC in September. Cufiño Rodriguez spent two more months in a rehabilitation center before finally being released in a wheelchair.
Now what will happen to my life, he thought.
The process to recovery has been long and difficult. Because he was here on a visa, Cufiño Rodriguez doesn't have access to health insurance that can pay for expensive medical needs and services. He was getting help for quite some time, but now he does his own form of physical therapy at home with his mother and boyfriend Mario.
"In Colombia, I was a sports professor, so I know a little bit about the body," he says. "I taught physical education at the primary, secondary and university level. So as you can imagine, the engine of my work was my body and now it's limited."
For Cufiño Rodriguez, it's also hard to heal in a place where he can't understand the language and doesn't have the support of other family and friends. He misses practicing gymnastics, swimming and martial arts. His daily schedule is monotonous – he wakes up, he eats breakfast, lunch and dinner, and then he goes to sleep. He still has to wear a colostomy bag and ask others for help dressing. Transportation is also tricky because it's hard to get a wheelchair in a car and the LYNX bus system can take hours. Still, he finds comfort in his 10-year-old son, who came to stay with him. The young boy tells him jokes and shows him how to play video games on his phone.
"My son and my mom have made me stronger," he says. "A lot of times I have even thought about taking my life because I think, 'What am I good for? Why continue if I'm physically limited?' But they've given me a reason to live."
In a few days, Cufiño Rodriguez will be returning to Colombia for good, though now a changed person. Like Reyes and Torres, he's always watching exits and planning escape strategies. When he feels more recuperated, he says he plans to advocate for better gun reform policies.
"This is something that should never happen again," he says. "The government should be able to better regulate guns in this country. Just surviving that was an achievement, but the next thing is I hope this story will not be repeated again."
Cufiño Rodriguez has also made a promise to himself to go to Puerto Rico to visit Jean Carlos' grave. Because he was in a coma, he could not attend the funeral.
"I want to see where Jean Carlos is and talk to him," he whispers. "I just want to say goodbye and thank him for being such a beautiful person with me."