Volume XVI | Issue 1 | Spring 2016
Paramedics return to their ambulances after delivering victims to Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg on Oct. 1, 2015. Photo: Aaron Yost/The News-Review

Mercy Medical Center ER rises to the challenge

Disaster drills become real as the hospital deals with mass casualties

As with all hospital emergency departments, Mercy Medical Center in Roseburg had drilled for a disaster, but never for an event involving multiple gunshot victims. 

Minutes after the Umpqua Community College shootings began, Mercy sounded the trauma team activation warning on its intercom, and the emergency room braced for up to 20 gunshot victims.

 Todd Luther, a registered nurse and director of the hospital’s emergency department, was about a mile away, preparing to leave the next day on a hunting trip. He arrived at the hospital before the first victims and helped organize the ER, which immediately filled with the entire staff of 25 nurses and physicians plus four surgeons and four additional physicians. The five operating rooms canceled all scheduled patients so they were available. An ER hallway with five adjoining rooms was cleared, and each room was staffed with a physician, nurses and staff. 

The emergency workers faced enormous pressure. Some of them had family members attending UCC and did not know if they might see a loved one show up on a gurney. 

David Price, who oversees a six-member team of hospital chaplains, said the event was “unprecedented.” The hospital, he said, could not have practiced for something of this magnitude.  

The staff’s plan was to focus immediately on the first five patients and prepare for five more in additional available rooms with the goal of treating them all within 20 minutes, Luther said. They aimed to work fast, so they could quickly get to a second wave of 10 patients.

 But in the end, only ten patients arrived. One died shortly after arriving, another was non-traumatic and the ER treated the other eight within an hour. Four were admitted for surgery, and three were airlifted to the PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend in Springfield.   

Mercy’s ER response had been quick, efficient and effective.

 “It was surprising,” Luther said. “We always knew we could do it, but it was smoother than any drill we ever ran.”

Price said, “The clinical proficiency and trauma service coordination could only be described as miraculous.” As medical workers attended to victims, Price and his staff offered families spiritual comfort and psychological first aid. 

“I spent time with families,” he said. “I spent time with some of the victims.”

Other mental health workers from Roseburg’s Community Health Alliance also came to the hospital to comfort victims and their families. A Eugene woman played her harp in the lobby, sending soothing tunes throughout the hospital. 

After the ER completed its work with the UCC victims, the hospital’s trauma director led a short debriefing with the staff. Then everyone turned “back to our normal selves” and began treating other patients showing up in the ER.

But there was nothing normal about that morning, and workers took time in the break room to hug, shed tears, vent and come to grips with the tragedy engulfing all of Roseburg.

“Typically it is a sign of weakness to show emotions,” Luther said, “but we broke through that.”

He was skeptical when he heard people wanted to bring in three golden retriever therapy dogs, but the “dogs were amazing” in providing comfort to the ER staff, he said.

Five months later, the Mercy Medical Center staff is still healing and not yet 100% back to normal, according to Luther. But the ER doctors, nurses and staff are working with more confidence. “What we learned is, when we need to, we can step up and deal with a situation like that. That was the real takeaway for our staff and community.” 

Medical facilities: Lessons Learned

Disaster training pays off. Even though Mercy Medical Center had never drilled specifically for a mass shooting, its disaster training meant staff knew what to do.

Provide recovery time for staff. After their work was done, the hospital staff took time to connect with each other. Mental health needs may need to be addressed.

Over prepare. Staff were ready to accept 20 victims. Only 10 patients arrived. Three were airlifted to PeaceHealth Sacred Heart Medical Center at RiverBend, about 70 miles away in Springfield. 

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