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Young Doctors Were Put To The Test After Vegas Mass Shooting


Last week's mass shooting in Las Vegas posed a test for new medical residents and fellows at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas hospital. They were in their first days on the job. NPR's Rebecca Hersher met two young surgeons.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Dr. Jorge Vega wasn't supposed to be working last Sunday night. He was at home headed for bed when he got the call. His boss told him, get over here. It's a mass casualty. He lives so close he got to the hospital in just a few minutes. Still, when he walked in, the trauma unit was already full.

JORGE VEGA: There were just patients in stretchers, in chairs, everywhere.

HERSHER: Vega and his colleague Dr. Timothy Dickoot arrived at the same time. They're both first-year fellows, which means they're trained as surgeons, but they're new - like, really new.

TIMOTHY DICKOOT: We got our board certification three days prior...

VEGA: Yep.

DICKOOT: ...From the board of general surgery. And this was kind of our first big cases.

HERSHER: Around them were at least 30 seriously injured people, patients moaning, screaming in pain, a lot of blood. Vega and Dickoot had to figure out who to focus on first. Vega says they fell back on basic triage training.

VEGA: If they were talking, you know, breathing, that was reassuring, but the quiet ones - I remember I looked at one corner and there was a gentleman that was very quiet. There was a nurse with him and very low blood pressures. And I started working on him.

HERSHER: Giving him blood, making sure he could breathe, figuring out where the bullet wound was. Did it go through the body? Where? Meanwhile, Dickoot focused on a man who had been shot in the abdomen.

DICKOOT: His heart was racing really fast, and he had a gunshot wound where it was an area where he would have life-threatening injuries. So I knew he needed to go to the O.R.

HERSHER: The operating room, but before Dickoot could do the surgery, he needed a more experienced surgeon to sign off. He called over his attending, explained the injuries. She agreed with his assessment. Fifteen minutes after arriving, both Dickoot and Vega were doing surgeries just three days after receiving their certifications. They spent the whole night working on victims.

DICKOOT: And it was pretty emotional. There was a lot of adrenaline, and there were times when you kind of held back, you know, and fought back some tears for a little bit. And then something else would happen and you'd have to go take care of a patient or go do something.

HERSHER: Finally, the madness of the night gave way to a calmer morning, and the two young surgeons took a moment to reflect on what they'd been through. The patients that Vega and Dickoot had operated on survived. Both young surgeons felt a mix of pride and fatigue.

DICKOOT: When I got done with the surgery, I was going through what I had done and I just remember kind of thinking like, I did that.

VEGA: Yeah, I think in the moment I didn't really think about it, and it wasn't until things were stable later on into the morning hours that we, you know, we stood next to each other and we said, man, this - we did this. We did this. I mean, this was done. This was accomplished. The patients were stabilized, and it was pretty surreal.

HERSHER: They also felt grief from all the pain they'd witnessed.

DICKOOT: I got home later the next day, and I was pretty emotional. I just kind of talked to my mom and dad, and that made me feel a little better taking the edge off. And then I got a good night's sleep and was back at it the next day.

HERSHER: They're both more sure than ever that they're cut out for this, ready to handle whatever comes their way, but also hopeful this shooting will be the biggest they'll ever face.

DICKOOT: Hopefully for the career.

VEGA: Yeah, hopefully ever.

DICKOOT: I hope, you know?

HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.


Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.