Boston Strong

by Nicole Phillips, MD

My phone and my pager had gone off in short order. The first, a phone call from my fiancé, asking me if I had heard the news. A bombing, he said, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. And then, seconds later, a message I won’t ever forget: “All surgical residents not in the OR should immediately report to the emergency room.”

I had no idea what to expect as I headed towards the elevators. The news was just starting to trickle in: a second bomb, they were now saying. Not sure how many are headed our way.

There are moments we will carry with us forever, and for me this is one of them: swiping my ID card to access the emergency room, the man mopping the floor which is covered in blood. I was an intern, overwhelmed, unsure of where I should go. I looked around for someone I knew, identified one of the senior residents. “How can I help?” I asked him. I was ready to cement my newly-minted role as a surgeon. I grabbed some gloves. I rolled up my sleeves.

Neither preparation proved necessary; the job he assigned me was to create a spreadsheet, listing the medical record numbers of all the patients we saw that day. Their name, if we knew it, and their injuries. Their treatment plan. Who was going to the OR, who needed labs, who had injured family members at the other hospitals in town. I grabbed a sheet of blank paper and set to work. It wasn’t the role I had imagined, but I was grateful to have a task.

Later that week, the program directors gathered all of the surgical residents together in a conference room. They told us their own stories of that day. How, when they heard the news in the OR, they immediately thought of their husbands and wives and children, many of whom were down at the finish line cheering on the runners. How they had to put their fears aside, because there was a patient under anesthesia, a patient who trusted them, a patient who needed their attention and focus for a few minutes more. How hard it was to do that. And they asked us how we were doing.

I wanted to do more, I said. I wanted to help more.

There are so many stories related to that day: of the first responders who ran towards the blast, not away from it. Of the patients and families who have survived impossible tragedy. Of my own colleagues and mentors, who worked tirelessly to salvage limbs and optimize functional outcomes. Over half of the patients admitted to Brigham and Women’s Hospital as a result of the bombing would eventually be discharged from the plastic surgery service, a testament to the dedication and talent of an extraordinary team of physicians with whom I am proud to train.

On a personal level, a large part of my experience relates to the words I spoke at that meeting. I wanted to do more. And so it is my responsibility to learn and train to the best of my abilities, so that I can do more every time those skills are needed.

But there were other lessons learned too.

This year, I had the opportunity to cheer on the runners as they crossed onto Boylston Street. The spirit of the crowd, the applause and waving signs that greeted each runner, the sense of a shared celebration despite the pouring rain and cold, in defiance of the fear and sadness which the bombing was meant to provoke: this, to me, exemplifies the lessons I have learned in Boston over the past three years, lessons learned from an entire community coming together to find our way through unimaginable times and come out on the other side. Stronger.

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