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A Doctor's Guidance For Hospitals After Mass Shootings


Dr. Comilla Sasson recalls thinking - nothing too bad happens on Thursday nights - when she was asked to work the emergency department at the University of Colorado Hospital on a July night in 2012. But around midnight, casualties began to stream in. There had been a shooting 3 miles away at a movie theater in Aurora. Dr. Sasson has since had the opportunity to share her experiences in conferences and training sessions. And she joins us now.

Dr. Sasson, thanks so much for being with us.

COMILLA SASSON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: Twelve people died in that attack. Seventy people were injured. A week like this make you think of that night again?

SASSON: I think it's hard not to. I think so many of us who have gone through these horrible situations, either living them as the health care providers or even in the community, I think all of us relived our nights when everything was unfolding in Las Vegas.

SIMON: I'm sorry, but you know we're in this kind of business. You treated 23 people. What were the wins and losses?

SASSON: You know, we were very fortunate. We had one dead on arrival, and every other person that we treated that night survived. To me, that is an absolute victory seeing how horribly sick these patients were and what catastrophic injuries they had. And it's - could not have been done without this amazing group of people who came together as a team to work with that one common goal of every person who walks in that door has to be able to walk out that door.

SIMON: What did you learn in those days at University of Colorado Hospital that other hospitals can benefit from learning now?

SASSON: Drill, drill, drill (laughter) - I cannot say that enough. Be prepared. As a Girl Scout growing up, I can't say how important that is. And our hospital did an amazing job. And I think every single hospital in the country has to be ready for a mass casualty event, whether it's a natural disaster or a manmade disaster. And I think the other thing is recognizing that your health care providers, whether they're the housekeeping staff or the scribes or the docs or the nurses, are not going to be able to necessarily go back to their normal right away. And really help them get through that grieving process because it is truly PTSD. There's a lot of grieving that has to happen, and there's a lot of debriefing and really taking care of your providers after that, every single person who is involved in any which way that night because everyone is going to need resources.

SIMON: Yeah. Doctors, nurses, the maintenance staff - they see everything. Don't they?

SASSON: You know, it's interesting because I - as an ER doctor, I think I've seen a lot of stuff and a lot of bad stuff. And I think it's the folks that maybe aren't necessarily used to seeing that that I worry about the most. So many of us were having nightmares and not sleeping and being very shaken up so that if you heard a car backfire in the street, you thought somebody was shooting at you. You know, those are the types of things that happen one week out, happen two weeks out, happen six months out. And to this day, I know friends and colleagues who have not gone back to their jobs because of what happened that night and how difficult it has been to process what they saw and what they experienced.

SIMON: Do a lot of us who just might think of us - ourselves as bystanders, can we learn something from what's happened and what we ought to do in a situation?

SASSON: Absolutely. So as an ER doc, I have absolutely no lives to save unless there are people on the ground - bystanders, laypeople - who do the right things, which are to stop the bleeding, especially in the case of a gunshot wound. Someone can bleed out in seconds, literally, and die in the field and not ever have a chance to come to the emergency department. And so out of the White House and the Department of Homeland Security, there's an initiative called Stop the Bleed. And that's where we teach bystanders how to literally stop bleeding, which is just three simple steps of call 911, find the source of the bleed, put pressure on it and put a tourniquet on it if needed. And those simple steps can absolutely save a life.

SIMON: Dr. Comilla Sasson from University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora.

Thanks so much for being with us.

SASSON: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: And tomorrow morning on Weekend Edition Sunday, they'll speak with the owner of the store Dixie Gunworx. He sold a gun to the Las Vegas shooter.

CHRIS MICHEL: Did I miss anything? Did I miss a red flag? Could I have stopped this? You know, I've been up multiple hours of the night thinking about all these kind of things.

SIMON: That's tomorrow morning on Weekend Edition Sunday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.