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Colorado theater shooting plunged hospitals into turmoil

It would be hours before one emergency room doctor understood the scope of the massacre.

July 25, 2012|By Ashley Powers and Amina Khan, Los Angeles Times
  • Heather L. Smith / Aurora Sentinel
Heather L. Smith / Aurora Sentinel (m7p6k1pd20120724205944/600 )

AURORA, Colo. — Dr. Tien Vu was fixing up a child's cut when the first victim was rolled into the emergency room. He was slumped in his wheelchair, his face gnarled in pain, his leg bloodied. A bullet had ripped into his thigh.

Something's off, Vu recalled thinking.

The emergency room at Children's Hospital Colorado, where Vu has worked for nearly a decade, mostly tends to kids' broken bones and stubborn fevers, though the staff has handled its share of ailing adults too. But a gunshot wound was unusual.

PHOTOS: 'Dark Knight Rises' shooting

It was just short of 1 a.m. Friday. The victim said a friend had sped him to the ER — Children's Hospital was the first "emergency" sign they'd spotted — from a nearby movie theater.

A movie theater?

He said a shooter had sprayed bullets into a crowd. Vu was skeptical. The ER staff hadn't heard anything. But just as Vu and another doctor began to cut away his clothes to reach his wound, dispatchers alerted the hospital.

An ambulance was on its way with a second victim.

*

It would be hours before Vu understood the scope of the massacre at the Century 16 theaters. A shooter clad in a gas mask and body armor stunned the Theater 9 audience — gathered for the 12:05 a.m. screening of the new Batman movie — with some kind of gas. Then he opened fire.

The 12 people killed ranged in age from 6 to 51, and all but two of them died in the theater. Dozens more were shot in the head, neck, torso and legs, some injured in the chaos of trying to escape, and ferried to local ERs. At least six remained in critical condition Tuesday.

Gunshot wounds often require surgery, so even a handful of shooting victims can quickly overwhelm an emergency room. Friday morning's massacre tested the limits of the area's mass-casualty response.

WHO THEY WERE: Aurora movie-theater victims

Doctors said their approach to such catastrophes had been transformed by lessons from the Sept. 11 attacks and shooting rampages such as the one at Columbine High School, only 20 miles away.

"What it's specifically changed is not necessarily triage … but that there is the capacity and the preparedness for mass-casualty care. It's now part of vernacular of every hospital and every emergency department," said Richard Zane, chief of emergency medicine at University of Colorado Hospital.

The hospital holds a monthly drill to test its response to various disasters, he said. What if there were too few surgeons to treat the wounded? Or part of the hospital caught fire? Other medical institutions do the same.

"So ... when this happened, although no one expected there was going to be mass gunshot victims, this was not the first time anybody had thought about how they would act," Zane said.

About 1 a.m., emergency rooms around the region were suddenly flooded with the shellshocked and wounded. University of Colorado Hospital eventually juggled 23 victims; Medical Center of Aurora, 18; and Denver Health Medical Center, seven.

"My first thought was, 'Oh my goodness, not again,' " said Dr. Chris Colwell, Denver Health's emergency medicine director, who also tended to gunshot victims after the 1999 Columbine shootings.

"The initial message was, 'We've had a report of shooting with multiple victims at a theater.' And just exchange 'school' for 'theater' and that's the message we got from Columbine."

Hospital officials made frantic phone calls, rousing off-duty doctors and nurses from their beds. Dr. Gilbert Pineda tossed on his scrub shirt and jeans, grabbed the bag with his stethoscope and raced to Medical Center of Aurora. He walked into bedlam.

One man's injuries to his torso and neck were so severe that police, not wanting to wait for an ambulance, brought him to the hospital in a squad car. He'd been whisked to the operating room. Another man was splayed in the hallway, his leg cinched with a makeshift tourniquet: a belt. A third had a wound to her face, and Pineda feared a bullet had burrowed into her brain.

All the while, someone howled, "Give me more morphine!"

*

Vu had left the first victim, who was in stable condition, in another doctor's hands. She waited for the second victim.

The shooting story is real, she thought.

She told a clerk to alert the staff: We're in mass-casualty mode.

The charge nurse moved stable patients out of trauma bays to make room for new patients. They didn't know how many would be coming. Rooms were cleared, equipment set up.

Vu, who is married and has a young daughter, was weary from the seven hours she'd already worked. But now she felt a whoosh of adrenaline.

The second victim arrived in very bad shape. Her torso was riddled with bullets. The paramedics who wheeled her in were already performing CPR, meaning she wasn't breathing and her heart had stopped.

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