My pager went off, alerting me to the impending arrival of a trauma or serious medical emergency to the emergency department. I scrolled through to see what we might be getting, anticipating a car accident or stroke like the previous pages of that shift. My heart dropped when I read “Level 1 GSW,” indicating the most serious type of trauma was en route and it was a gunshot wound [GSW]. I scrolled further and saw the age of the victim — a minor.
It was early Easter morning, April 17, and this was the beginning of what Pittsburgh learned later was a mass shooting at a party of mostly teenagers in a North Side Airbnb.
When I made it over to Trauma Bay 10, a flurry of orchestrated activity was ensuing to prepare for what EMS was bringing us.
The trauma team divvied up tasks. Who would ultrasound the patient’s abdomen to locate or rule out internal bleeding? Who would interview the patient to get past medical history?
The respiratory therapists prepared their equipment. The page indicated the patient was breathing, but they would be ready just in case.
The pharmacist and pharmacy students arrived, prepared to provide pain management, traumatic cardiac arrest medication or anything else. The techs prepared the IV kits, blood and more. The imaging technicians prepared the trauma bay stretcher for real-time x-rays.
Environmental services was just outside the trauma room, ready to sanitize the room for the next patient. The lead trauma nurse documented the arrival of each member of the healthcare team. And then there was me, the social worker, standing in the corner of the trauma bay ready to do whatever was needed.
As an emergency department social worker at a level 1 trauma center, my job changes throughout the day, depending on what each individual patient needs. I am present when all traumas, stroke alerts and internal alerts (serious medical emergencies) arrive. If a patient comes in and we don’t know who they are, I take the lead in trying to determine their identity. I track down family members and next of kin and notify them that their loved one is in the hospital and their condition.
I provide resources to patients: how to get a protection-from-abuse order if you’re fleeing intimate partner violence, shelter lists for unhoused or unstably housed patients, health insurance applications for uninsured patients, mental health resources and substance abuse information for anyone who wants or needs it. I provide emotional support to patients and their loved ones and serve as the primary point of contact for them. And when someone loses their life in the emergency department, I (and sometimes the attending physician or resident) inform the patient’s next of kin.
When I got into Trauma Bay 10, the nurse informed me that there was a mass shooting on the North Side and we were about to get slammed with patients. At that point, it was rumored that there were more than 500 people at the event and possibly 20 shot. As time went on, these numbers lowered. Our first patient arrived, and shortly after, the rest of the patients followed.
I am not going to share what happened in the trauma bay; that will forever stay with the people in those rooms that night. There is no need to remind those in attendance at the party and their loved ones of what was most likely one of the worst nights of their lives. There is no need to remind the healthcare workers at my hospital and the others in the area of what we saw.
There are plenty of online articles and comments sharing various perspectives on the shooting in East Allegheny that led to two deaths of teenage boys and nine others wounded. There are people praying for those impacted by the event, people from all political ideologies blaming whatever political figure best fits their narrative, and those who attended the party or live in the neighborhood sharing what happened. Very few, if any, are talking about the trauma of that night and its lifelong impact.
The young people in attendance at the party found themselves in a life-or-death situation, and that night will forever be ingrained in their memory. Their loved ones found themselves wondering where and in what condition they were going to find their children, siblings, nieces or nephews, grandchildren or friends. Police, medics and firefighters wondered if they would be the next victims as they rescued and treated the attendees. Those living in the vicinity wondered if they were safe in their own homes. Healthcare workers at hospitals strive to help the injured, both physically and emotionally.
I wish I could say there’s an easy way to cope with the events of that night. There isn’t. No amount of self-care can combat the consequences of the systemic failures that enable mass shootings to occur on a daily basis in this country. We as a society must come together to support each other.
I urge you to look at what local corporations, individuals and grassroots organizations are doing to support those impacted by this tragedy. Take Action Mon Valley is offering free individual and group therapy to youth impacted. CKV Suites is donating their space for therapy and crisis circles to support youth and their loved ones. CeaseFirePA is organizing an advocacy day in Harrisburg to demand action on gun violence prevention.
If you were not impacted by this event, I urge you to look at how you can help. Are you a mental health professional who can donate your time and skills to offer free therapy? Are you an expert on safe gun handling and storage who can help to encourage safe gun ownership? Are you a property owner with space that can be used for therapy, crisis circles or memorials? Do you have the financial means to donate money to grassroots organizations providing free or low-cost mental health treatment?
While we were not in attendance at the party, the vicarious trauma of that night will stick with me and my fellow healthcare workers for the rest of our lives. We sat with those who were injured during the shooting and while running away. We sat with them and felt their pain: emotional, physical, spiritual. We sat with them and offered what little comfort can be provided in that situation: pain medication, tears wiped from their faces, a hand to hold, a shoulder to cry on and the knowledge that their loved ones were on their way to the hospital. And we pretended this hadn’t happened when the next patient came in that night so we could give them everything we had all over again.
Alyssa Lisle is an ER social worker living in Pittsburgh. If you want to send a message to Alyssa, please email email@example.com.
The Jewish Healthcare Foundation has contributed funding to PublicSource’s healthcare reporting.
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