Have you ever fallen asleep without turning off the TV and awakened in the middle of the night to the words, “breaking news” flashing on the screen? That’s what happened to me in the early morning hours of Sunday, June 12, almost one month ago — a day sure to become another of the darkest, most unforgettable ones forever etched in our minds because of the painful memories it evokes.
It took me less than a minute to grasp that something horrific was happening, and as I turned up the volume on the TV, I heard some of the most incomprehensibly horrible sound bites: “Lone gunman kills 49 and wounds more than 50 others;” “First responders on the scene of the carnage;” “Worst mass shooting in U.S. history since September 11, 2001;” and later, “The hostage situation has ended and the lone shooter is dead.”
The news footage being telecast from the crime scene was hard to process at the time, but now somehow I find it easy to recall. I remember the voices, the screaming, the cries for help and the faces of those who ran in the dark to assist the wounded and move the dead. “Too much to take in,” one reporter said. “Dead and wounded bodies and blood are everywhere,” said another. I remember seeing the flashlights, TV floodlights and car headlights illuminating the dark to find victims and help transport them to the local trauma center by any conveyance available — ambulances, police vans, private cars or the arms of their rescuers.
Each camera shot looked like something seen only in war zone reports. How could this be Orlando, Florida, the home of Disney’s Magic Kingdom? Thirty-nine people, including the shooter had been pronounced dead at the scene; 11 were pronounced dead at local hospitals.
The photos and bulletins from the Pulse nightclub kept coming. Soon after it was reported that victims were being taken to Orlando Regional Medical Center, we began to hear unforgettable interviews with physicians, nurses and administrative personnel about patient numbers and injuries, how many were deceased and wounded, condition reports and surgeries underway. There were two among them I know I won’t forget. One was a physician who, along with his patient report, said at a news conference that ORMC has the best nurses in the world. The other was an interview with an on-call trauma surgeon at the medical center who had thought about what it would be like for staff members he called in the middle of the night to come in and care for victims of a mass shooting. He spoke of the impact it had on him when he had to say to each one: “This is not a drill.”
And this time it wasn’t a drill; it was real. Except for one word, the sentence is one that medical personnel, particularly emergency and trauma staff nurses and doctors, are very familiar with from the many emergency and mass casualty drills they regularly take part in. The difference this time was that the triage was real, the wounds were real, the patients were real. The nursing staff, both from ORMC and the other system hospitals, arrived quickly; the shooting victims arrived continually. All through the night and early morning hours they came, and all staff cared about was saving them.
By June 13 at the medical center, 44 of the wounded were treated; 26 operations had been performed; and generous blood donors were coming from near and far to help. The ORMC staff members were heroes and the entire nation was thinking about Orlando, the victims, and the staff treating them.
Will it be hard for the staff to recover from that night? Yes. Will it take its toll on them? Yes. They will need time and a lot of support and counseling. But in the end they will know that what they accomplished was nothing short of a miracle.
This was an unprecedented act of terrorism and hate that was big and ugly and horrible, and for the staff of ORMC it came to where they work. That will resound with them for a long time, but the words spoken to them when they were called in to work that night almost one month ago will resound with them forever: “This is not a drill.”
To read more about how ORMC staff responded that night, read “Orlando RNs pull together to help Pulse Nightclub victims.”