What it's like to be a nurse during a mass shooting: 'What I saw was beyond anything I had to prepare for'

The shooter who opened fired at a high school in Florida on Wednesday, killing 17 and wounding at least a dozen, set off a series of events that — in the United States — has tragically become second nature.

According to Mother Jones, there have been 97 mass shootings since 1982, incidents that it defines as “indiscriminate rampages in public places resulting in four or more victims killed by the attacker.” To the average American, these tragedies are horrifying, unnerving, even traumatizing. But to the medical personnel who come face to face with the trauma — and fight to save the victims — it’s uniquely terrorizing.

A 2012 study from the International Journal of Nursing found that exposure to disturbing events can have a psychological impact on nurses, leading to posttraumatic stress reactions such as anxiety and depression. Particularly traumatizing, the researchers found, are sudden deaths or severe injuries of young people.

On Wednesday, while nurses in Florida likely witnessed just that, nurses in Las Vegas were simultaneously (and coincidentally) healing from the trauma they had endured on Oct. 1, 2017, when a gunman opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers there, killing 58. Officials at the University Medical Center in Las Vegas had specifically chosen Valentine’s Day — a “day associated with love” — for the healing event, with the purpose of offering solace to the nurses who were on call at the time of the shooting.

Speaking to those in attendance, LeAnn Thieman, a longtime nurse and author of 14 Chicken Soup for the Soul books, told them that they needed to remember to take care of themselves in the wake of such tragedies. She couldn’t “even imagine how horrific” their Oct. 1 was, Theiman said to the nurses. “The whole world was watching you, and they see the candle that you lit, and you have inspired the whole world with what you do.”

In the nursing community, treating victims in a mass shooting has now become a unifying — albeit incredibly painful — experience. When a new tragedy strikes, nurses from the hospital in Aurora, Colo., where victims were treated after a deadly 2012 shooting reportedly send a signed banner with their names to the staff of the hospital treating the victims. “It’s our way of saying that we’re part of a unique group that understands what they’re going through,” Stephanie Manley, director of community and volunteer services at the Medical Center of Aurora, said.

As the community of Parkland, Fla., works to heal, here is a look at what the nurses on the frontlines of these tragedies have to endure.

Dean Harris, a traveling nurse who was working at University Medical Center in Las Vegas on Oct. 1, when a shooter opened fire on a crowd of concertgoers, killing 58 and injuring more than 500:

“We had to move so quick, and there just wasn’t enough room back in the emergency departments. … They started writing letters on people’s foreheads like if you’ve got this letter, you send them over here. People who got shot in the leg were just sitting out in the hallway in chairs. We were just trying to patch up the hole real quick just to get that stabilized,” Harris told local news. “Myself, some other nurses, and a doctor were out there throwing gauze and tape on people and cutting off clothes just trying to figure out where the wound was.”

Renae Huening, a trauma nurse in Las Vegas who was working at a nearby facility called Sunrise Hospital:

“There was literally a trail of blood going into the hospital from the parking lot. People came in the back of trucks, in limos, in Ubers,” Heunig told the Washington Post in a recent video. “They came in by four, six, eight. We were just grabbing people as fast as we could and getting them inside the building so we could stabilize them. … I never thought it would be the extent of what it was.”

Elisabeth Brown, an emergency department nurse at Orlando Regional Medical Center, a few blocks from the Pulse nightclub, where 49 were killed and more than 50 injured in June 2016:

“Our first patient came in, and then we got to work. That’s what we do in the emergency department,” Brown said, when looking back on the tragedy with other medical staff. “So we were starting, and then another patient came in. And then another patient came in. And another patient came in, and they just kept coming, and they had wounds like I had never seen before, and I started to get really scared, and I looked in the other nurses’ eyes and they were scared too.”

Julie Workman, a nurse at First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where 25 people were killed and 20 injured in November 2017:

After getting shot, Workman ran to her car and grabbed rags to use as emergency tourniquets. “They teach you to move past those that you can’t help and to move to the living,” Workman told the San Antonio Express-News. “That’s what I kept my mind focused on. Otherwise I would have lost it. What I saw was beyond anything I had to prepare for.”

Connie Cunningham, a nurse and executive director of emergency and trauma services at Loma Linda University Medical Center, a few miles from the 2015 shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., which left 14 dead and more than 20 injured:  

“That was the hardest part of the day,” Cunningham told Nurse.com of having people come check for loved ones. “In your gut, you know they’re still in the [other] building. … It was the most helpless feeling in the world to say, ‘Your mom is not in the hospital.’ You’re realizing that everybody who’s left is deceased, and there’s nothing you can tell them.”

Nancy Bowman, nurse who was at the Safeway market in Tucson, Ariz., during a shooting in 2011 when six people were killed and more than a dozen injured, including former Rep. Gabrielle Giffords:

“This was just people down on the concrete. I was literally putting my non-sterilized, non-gloved finger into bullet holes,” she told Nurse.com. “When you’re a nurse, you stay with your patient. Nurses get much more involved with their patients and the patients’ families than physicians generally do. They dwell a bit longer on a death.”

Anna Marie Hamel, nurse director of the emergency department at the Swedish Medical Center, near Columbine High School in Colorado, where 13 people were killed and 20 wounded in 1999:

“We had a special phone number set up and had a list of where all of the injured had been taken,” Hamel told the Denver Post. “The hardest thing was if they’d ask if we had someone as a patient and I’d tell them they weren’t on the list. After I hung up, I realized I may have just told them the worst news of their lives.”

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