On Saturday, Aug. 3, 2019, a gunman opened fire at a packed Walmart in East-Central El Paso, killing 23 and wounding 24.
Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso and Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso residents, nursing and medical students were part of response teams at local hospitals that cared for victims of the mass shooting that day and the ensuing days.
One year after the tragedy, TTUHSC El Paso and TTP El Paso medical personnel who worked in University Medical Center of El Paso’s emergency department that day reflected on what has happened in the ensuing year. TTP El Paso work in affiliation with University Medical Center of El Paso (UMC), as well as El Paso Children’s Hospital and The Hospitals of Providence.
Alan Tyroch, M.D., FACS, surgery chair and professor for TTUHSC El Paso’s Foster School of Medicine, said his job has felt like a whirlwind since the tragedy. Dr. Tyroch also is chief of surgery and trauma medical director at UMC.
“We were all so busy in the days and weeks after that,” said Dr. Tyroch. “A lot of us were involved in various committees, interviews and testifying before state committees.
“We were engaged in, and still are, with the COVID-19 pandemic, which started for us in Texas in March. So that’s been almost all-consuming with patient care for some of us.”
Susan McLean, M.D., FACS, director of surgical critical care at UMC, and professor in the Department of Surgery at TTUHSC El Paso, said it’s hard to believe a year has passed.
Over the past few months, Dr. McLean has conducted research on the response to the mass shooting, studying the triage system used at UMC that day and documenting the number of responders involved and their roles in caring for the wounded.
“We used a rapid triage system that’s being talked about more,” Dr. McLean said. “Basically, the triage involved the question of whether the patient needed to go to the operating room or not. Old triage systems had a tri-step system where they had green, red and yellow colors that determined who would be worked on first based on severity of injury.”
Dr. McLean said the tri-step system’s other potential problem was that a patient’s triage status could change from the time they were given a color code to the time they arrived at the hospital.
Dr. McLean said UMC’s emergency department has monthly trauma continuing education conferences and monthly quality improvement conferences that help them refine their trauma care to the highest level.
Over the past year, Dr. Tyroch has attended trauma conferences and presented about the El Paso mass casualty incident. He expects he will continue to be invited to present on the topic for the near future.
The work of trauma surgeons, nurses, and medical and nursing students helped Michelle Grady survive her wounds from that horrific day. On Sunday, Aug. 2, 2020, she was in attendance at her father’s church in El Paso, Prince of Peace Christian Fellowship Church, as he preached about hope on the eve of the shooting’s one-year anniversary.
“A year ago, we were broken, we were bruised, we were weary. But I found in Him a resting place. Thank you for the life of Michelle Grady; You spared her life and now she has become a living epistle to be read by all. All of the survivors and the families of those who are experiencing this pain, speak peace to their troubled souls,” Pastor Grady asked of God toward the end of Sunday’s sermon.
As Pastor Grady thinks back to that day, he remembers everyone who helped his daughter along the way. Michelle has had close to 11 surgeries since the day of the shooting and uses a cane to walk.
“I want to give 100 percent kudos to the first responders, the nurses, the physicians – especially the UMC staff,” Pastor Grady said. “What they did for Michelle and others who went to that hospital was just tremendous. We’re still in contact with them. Michelle’s physician who operated on her is a close friend to her now. Those people who have the passion to save lives and put themselves on the line – we applaud them tremendously.”
Dr. Tyroch and Dr. McLean also say Aug. 3, 2019, wasn’t the last time they’ve seen some of the wounded.
“It’s amazing when you see a patient, either at a grocery store or in your clinic, months after their event. That’s a very nice thing to see. It’s like, ‘wow, I don’t even recognize you compared to what you were like in the critical care unit.’ So that’s always nice for a doctor or a nurse to see their patients they cared for for so long,” Dr. Tyroch said.
“I was able to see patients shortly after the event – many of them came to my surgery clinic for follow-up,” Dr. McLean said. “There was a big event held at the El Paso Zoo in late fall by a company with several employees involved in the shooting. They invited people who responded that day, as well as patients. After the speeches were done, I was able to meet with a number of patients. It was very nice seeing them more in a civilian, ‘out-of-the-hospital,’ situation. That was uplifting.”
Healing mentally has also been a big part of the lives of health care professionals over the past year. For Dr. Tyroch, that includes talking to colleagues who shared the experience.
“One of the things I told residents after the event was that they needed to write out their thoughts and emotions. Fifteen, twenty years from now, your kids or grandkids are going to say, ‘Hey dad or mom, what happened in El Paso in 2019?’”
Dr. Tyroch recalled being given this same advice years ago from surgeons who were present the day John F. Kennedy was assassinated.
Ultimately, teamwork and unity helped the health care professionals get through that day and the months ahead.
“It was a great team effort to help the patients brought in that day,” Dr. McLean said. “Over 160 people from UMC, TTP El Paso and El Paso Children’s Hospital came into the hospital to work that day. Responding to trauma is part of the mission of the hospital in the community. That’s why so many people came.”
For much, if not all of El Paso, Aug. 3 will forever be a day of somber remembrance.
“I think it’s a day to reflect on this event and just reflect on these families that lost so much that day,” Dr. McLean said. “Reflect on the patients and remember that many of them have ongoing medical problems or will have problems in the future because of their injuries.”