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Thursday, April 19, 2012

17 Years Ago Today

I was a third year medical student. I was tired and busy and nervous. I was engaged to be married in December. I was on my surgery rotation. One of the most hated. It meant long long hours. I had to be at the hospital and ready to "round" with the intern by 5am so we could round with the senior resident at 6am. Attendings at 6:30am.  Then surgical cases began at 7-7:30am. If you weren't scrubbed in on a case, you were studying, or supposed to be.

I remember it being one of those perfect spring days. A little chilly in the morning. Just enough to feel it and dew on the grass. The sun came up bright and lovely and we were all complaining about how we'd rather be outside than stuck in the stupid hospital.

At 9am that day I had just ran down to the floor to check on a patient. I was on my way back to the student lounge when it happen. The walls shook. There was a HUGE noise. I ran up the stairs to see if my friends knew what had happened. No one knew. A few minutes later we headed to check out the TV. The loud speakers in the hospital began to blare out a message none of us understood at first. "CODE BLACK. CODE BLACK. This is not a drill. Repeat This is not a drill.  ALL attendings, residents and medical students report IMMEDIATELY to the emergency room for assignments."  It repeated a time or 2 before we understood it meant us.

As we ran down the stairs scared to death, we saw nurses and doctors and people scurrying every which way. We were asking each other "What the heck is code black?"  Someone shouted, "DISASTER. It's a disaster. A major problem like plane crash or explosion or something." We ran faster down the hall. On the TV there was already aerial footage of the building and a big black cloud of smoke. The windows in the hospital lobby were blown out and there were people crying in the lobby, but we kept going headed toward the ER. No one knew what had happened yet.

I remember streaming in to the ER and seeing every attending physician in the hospital. All of them. Scariest thing I've ever seen. Ever. We all knew something really really bad had happened. We were given assignments. I was assigned to triage. We gowned up in trauma gear and headed outside where we were given cards to assign to patients-green, yellow, red.  Red was the most critical. We were supposed to start IVs, assign the cards and divide the victims into groups.

You have to understand. We'd only done a few IVs at this point. Sutured a few times. We were absolutely terrified. We looked at each other with excited, but also gravely serious looks on our faces. It was made even more terrifying by the looks on the faces of the surgeons and doctors we idolized and feared. They were scared, too.

Information began to trickle in. There had been an explosion at the federal building downtown. It was a couple miles from where we were. We tried to call friends who were on rotations at St. Anthony's which was closer to the blast. Getting cellphone signal was really hard. We stood and waited in the ambulance bay. And waited. And waited. The worst part. A few people came in cars and trucks. There were a few ambulances.

It was chaos as a few more bomb scares happened. Some of our friends had jogged and walked over to see what had happened. As time went on, it was clear. We were not going to get the injuries we thought. And later, we knew that it was because many were already dead.

A triage area was set up in the cafeteria where students and residents pulled glass out of people and stitched minor wounds and took histories and listened to stories. We gave tetanus shots and bandaged and reassured the terrified people. Then I finally got a phone call. It was my Aunt.

I wondered how strange it was that she called. I figured she knew I was in the area and was checking on me. She was, but then she told me. That building. That was the one my two cousins worked in. They were cousins, but they were much older than me. I called them my "uncles" growing up. I was confused.  She asked me to check to see if they were there because no one could find them.

So, I ran back to the ER. No one registered there by those names. No John Doe with their description. I called my friends in all the other hospitals. No one had them admitted. I tried to walk over to the site. I had heard that some of my friends were there helping triage close to the building. But by then, the streets were blocked and the police and FBI had shut down the scene.

I hung around a while and helped where I could and then I finally told my resident I was going home. I couldn't think straight and I needed to check on my family. I drove home to Norman where the family had started to gather together. We were glued to the TVs. Sat perched by the phones. We had the TVs on different channels in different rooms. We called everyone we knew that might have information. As the day wore into night, and they were trying to find anyone alive it got scarier.  I called my friends who were on call all night. No one had seen my family members. We had hope that maybe they were in a hospital and no one knew yet.

As we woke up the next day, that hope diminished. I drove to the hospital as I had all the days before. I was worried and scared. The first patient I was assigned to was a man from the bombing. He had a skull fracture. He had brain fluids leaking out on his pillow. He was in critical condition and probably wouldn't make it. I walked in the room and began to examine him. I proceeded to have a panic attack.

I was hyperventilating. I was shaking and dizzy. I thought I would pass out. The nurse in the room in the ICU noticed me. Normally this sort of reaction might elicit scorn from an experienced ICU nurse. Another med student freaked by a critical brain patient? But, not today. Today everyone was sad and scared and in mourning. She asked if I was OK. She escorted me out of the room and sat me down. I burst into tears. I couldn't talk.

Another student came over. Asked what was wrong. "My uncles." Was all I could get out. Finally I was able to calm down and explained they were missing and likely in the rubble. The clock was ticking and if they weren't found soon........well everyone there knew what it meant if they weren't found. I was mercifully sent home to be with my family. My fellow students said they would cover for me.

A center for the families was set up at a nearby church. The fire chief and rescue people and medical examiner and representatives from the hospitals were there. Counselors and ministers. We were all on watch hoping our family members would be found alive. We sat there for days waiting to hear and knowing that each minute that went by we were less likely to get good news. Then, we just wanted to know.

One cousin was found after a few days, the other not for weeks. I had nightmares for weeks, months after the bombing where I was looking for them, they were calling me, and I couldn't help them. I was terrified that my soon to be husband would leave and not come home one day. I was afraid of the hospital and sometimes the patients. It changed everything.  It changed me, our family, our state, our nation.

That day 168 people were killed, 19 were children. Nearly 700 people were injured.  It left 2 widows and 5 children without fathers in our family. It left me knowing that everything could end any minute. You'd better live your life the best you can. Love your family and at every opportunity tell them that you do.  I learned to be a better doctor. More empathetic to those that experience trauma.

It left me with more empathy for those that have anxiety and PTSD because it is something I battle even now at times.  I still do not leave the house without saying goodbye to my husband. For years after, I physically could not go anywhere or leave him without saying goodbye.  If I left and forgot to hug my husband, I had to turn around and go back. Had to. Now it's a habit I cherish.

Even now after all these years this day is a hard day. A day of remembrance. A day to be thankful. A day to count our blessings. A day to think about the fragility of life. A day that I will never forget.

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