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Reflecting on the Medical Response to the Boston Bombings

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Photo by Aaron “tango” Tang

It’s been just over a month since the Boston Marathon bombings that claimed three lives and injured over 260 individuals.

Such a devastating tragedy associated with loss and trauma (where those directly and indirectly victimized will probably experience the physical and mental aftershock for some time—or perhaps always) also brings to mind the ying to the event’s horrific yang. First responders and emergency personnel—both as officials and civilians—that stepped in to help provide comfort and hope and restore our faith in humanity, after such a devastating, inhumane act.

Emergency Response Plans

In a piece printed in The Boston Globe on April 26, 2013, FEMA’s Deputy Administrator, Rich Serino, described how Boston’s first responders, including medical personnel, were ready in the event that such a disaster might occur. Serino explained that large scale events like the Marathon, as well as the Democratic National Convention (2004) and major holiday festivities, are treated like ‘planned disasters’ with response plans fully established.

Serino added, referring to the Boston Marathon bombings:

“It was no accident that not a single hospital in the city was overwhelmed with patients in the aftermath of the bombings. It was no accident that patients were appropriately triaged and transported in an orderly manner to the appropriate hospital based on their needs. And it was no accident that a Medical Intelligence Center was fully staffed and operating on race day to keep track of patients, coordinate resources and share information with the medical community throughout the region.”

Medical Imagers

Medical imagers, like ultrasound technicians and radiologic technologists, also played an extremely valuable role in response to the Boston bombings. For example, the Tufts Medical Center’s radiology department had extra staff come in and stay well beyond their shifts to interpret the numerous X-rays and CT scans performed on victims of the explosion.

AuntMinnie.com’s Wayne Forrest recently wrote an article profiling Tufts’ chief of musculoskeletal imaging, Dr. Robert Ward, who described that due to the volume of patients and time sensitivity, he and his colleagues only did one X-ray for foot/ankle/leg injuries, versus the customary two exams. “Because of the emergent nature of the injuries, we would get one x-ray and [patients] would go straight to the operating room,” said Ward, as noted in Forrest’s article. “It is purely a time issue. With some of the bizarre shrapnel fragments that we were seeing, it was hard to believe they were actually inside people.” Ward added that CT scans were performed on individuals who had been harmed above the waist.

Boston Medical Center’s Manager of Ultrasound, Carol Morrissey Downing, was extremely diligent on April 15, 2013, when she carried out her role managing radiology resources and personnel—all the while observing the horrifying scene of victims with severe burns, shrapnel wounds and amputations. “For nearly four hours, Downing said the waiting room, emergency room and operating room were packed with victims and their families as a scene of ‘organized chaos’ played out,” reported Matt Tempesta of The Daily Item (April 18, 2013). “…Downing said her immediate task was to send every radiology technician and portable machine to the emergency room for X-rays and CAT scans.”

How doctors, nurses, medical imagers, EMTs and other personnel responded to the Boston bombings is just a reminder of the vital role played by healthcare workers. But not only are they heroes during such an extreme event—they perform valuable functions each and every day.

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