Traumatic day motivates them to help others
Many El Pasoans will never forget where they were on Aug. 3, 2019 when they heard about a mass shooting unfolding at an East-Central El Paso Walmart. The incident claimed the lives of 23 innocent victims and injured more than two dozen others.
For Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso students working in local hospitals that day, the incident became a life-changing event. More than 20 students helped treat gunshot-wound victims at both Del Sol Medical Center and University Medical Center of El Paso.
As part of their education, students from the Foster School of Medicine and the Hunt School of Nursing routinely complete clinical rotations at various teaching hospitals throughout the city. On that day, their priorities shifted from learning to saving lives.
Veronica Ruiz, a 2019 graduate of the Hunt School of Nursing, was one semester away from completing her nursing education when the shooting occurred. Working her clinical rotation at UMC that day, she remembered the entire staff was in shock when they first heard the news; however, they quickly jumped into action and prepared to save as many lives as they could.
“It was terrifying for everyone,” Ruiz said. “Having people coming in with these wounds – because they weren’t your typical gunshot wounds. It was terrifying not knowing when the end would come, because we didn’t know what we were facing.”
Esai Barrios, another 2019 graduate of the Hunt School of Nursing, had just finished assisting with the operating room’s first patient of the day at UMC. He was talking with colleagues when an attending physician ran down the hall telling them to get to the emergency room because there had been a shooting.
Barrios described the moment as “bone-chilling” as he realized it wasn’t a regular case of gun violence.
“As soon as we walked into the ER, we saw people working together to prepare for the victims to arrive,” Barrios said. “I looked at my colleague and once I saw her teary-eyed, that’s when it felt real. That’s when I realized it was more serious than I thought.”
After checking on family and friends, Christian Castro, who was starting his third year at the Foster School of Medicine, drove to UMC knowing he had to help in any way possible. He hoped his recent work in the trauma bay would be useful.
“I was surprised at how many health care providers were already there. There were doctors ranging from trauma surgeons and general surgeons, to orthopaedic surgeons and emergency physicians,” Castro said. “The next few hours were unlike anything I had ever experienced, even though I had been working in the trauma bay for the previous two weeks.”
Though a year has passed, the memory is still very fresh for Castro, who’s entering his final year of medical school this summer. He hopes to become a surgeon so he’ll be in place to save more lives in the future.
“I know it’s been a year, but it doesn’t feel like that. I think about that day often. I’m an El Pasoan – those events don’t happen in our city, to the people we know and the people we care about,” Castro said. “What sticks out to me was how a city that’s never experienced something like this was able to respond. I still think about all the doctors and nurses and how they were prepared for that day. In medical school you always prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Unfortunately, the worst happened but we were prepared for it.”
Ruiz will always remember how students and medical professionals worked as a team. She carries that lesson with her now as a registered nurse serving on the front line in the COVID-19 Intensive Care Unit at UMC.
“I’m grateful for how involved TTUHSC El Paso is in the community. After Aug. 3, the faculty allowed us to stay at UMC and help. They didn’t have to, but they felt it was necessary for us, even as students, to stay there and help,” Ruiz said.
The memory is still traumatic for Barrios, but he’s taken what he learned that day and at the Hunt School of Nursing, and applies it to help his patients. He graduated in December 2019 and is a registered nurse working in the Neuroscience Intensive Care Unit at UMC.
“I’m still dealing with it emotionally,” Barrios said. “There are still instances where I have to pull myself aside and say, ‘You went through it, you were just a student at the time, but now you’re a nurse and you’re giving back.’”