Patience Carter was 20, her best friend, Tiara Parker, was 21 and Parker's cousin, Akyra Murray, was 18 when the three young women found themselves at the club in the early morning hours of June 12, 2016, the day of the mass shooting.
The trio, who were visiting from Philadelphia, discovered the gay club through a Google search and arrived at the venue shortly after midnight.
About two hours later, the women had agreed to order an Uber ride to the vacation home where they were staying.
Gunfire erupted and Carter and Murray ran outside the club before running back inside to search for Parker.
The women were among more than a dozen people who tried to seek shelter in a bathroom stall. Murray was killed and Carter was shot several times in the legs.
Carter told WFTV on Tuesday that the anniversary of the attack is always a difficult time for her, because it reminds her of all who perished.
“I’m reminded of my own pain every day. My leg still hurts. I remember the fact that I was shot in my legs every day. That pain is never going anywhere,” she said. “But the anniversary reminds me that there are wounds deeper than my physical ones. It reminds me that some wounds never heal for people, like Akyra’s family.”
Carter said that although June 12 brings awful memories to mind, she is thankful for the events being held Wednesday to commemorate the dead, describing them as "extreme acts of kindness."
“My only hope is that the focus remains on those lives and their legacy," she said. “Knowing that these events are continuing restores some of my hope in humanity. It gives the phrase ‘gone but not forgotten’ real meaning, and for that I am grateful.”
Carter, who now lives in Florida, said she seldom visits Orlando, but she visited the shuttered nightclub earlier this year to honor the memory of Murray, her fiancé’s younger sister.
She said she typically does not attend the annual remembrance events because she is focused on providing her fiancé emotional support.
“I’ve been able to heal faster, emotionally, from this tragic event, but not him," Carter said. “When June 12 arrives, it’s the hardest day for him. I try to be as much support as I can since I understand the level of pain he’s experiencing. June 12 is usually private family time for me.”
She said her fiancé pays tribute to Murray daily.
"He honors Akyra's life every day by doing 20 pushups before he leaves the house," Carter said. "He kisses her photo on the wall before walking out the door, faithfully."
Carter said that although three years have passed since the mass shooting, the tragedy has had a lingering effect on her life physically and psychologically.
"I’m way more cautious than I was before the shooting," she said. "I used to take more risks with where I went and the places I traveled to. But now, I think about the what-ifs. Like, what if someone comes in here with a gun? Do I know where the nearest exit is?"
Carter said she constantly reaffirms her sense of safety and security.
"I remind myself that I’m OK, and that I’m safe," she said. "I look around and ask myself, is there any reason for me to be afraid right now? Once I realize that it’s just my emotional memories from my traumatic event resurfacing, I ignore them."
Carter said she received a certified trauma professional certification "to not only understand more about my own responses to trauma but to offer any advice I can (provide) to help people dealing with theirs."
She said she has written a book called "Survive Then Live: The Patience Carter Story," which will be released later this month.
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