The trauma system in Tucson, Ariz., was hailed for its response to the Jan. 8 shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) and 15 others gathered to meet her at a shopping center, six of whom were killed.
In the wake of tragedy
Tucson hospitals lauded for deft handling of victims
Survivors of the shooting benefited from the fact that the attack took place relatively close to University Medical Center, which is Tucson's only Level 1 trauma center.
“It should be noted that the system worked beautifully and saved lives,” said Laurie Liles, president and CEO of the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association, Phoenix. “This is what trauma centers do,” Liles said.
Four Tucson hospitals treated victims of the shootings. University Medical Center treated 11 patients, including Giffords and three who had been transferred from other hospitals, according to UMC. Three arrived by air and five by ground, including Giffords, according to an e-mail from Sara Hammond, a spokeswoman for University of Arizona, which is affiliated with UMC.
Carondelet St. Mary's Hospital, with 429 beds, treated four, one of whom was transferred to UMC; 300-bed Northwest Medical Center treated two who were transferred to UMC; and 449-bed Carondelet St. Joseph's Hospital treated one.
“You never want to be in a situation in which these systems have to be put to the test,” Ruth Brinkley, president and CEO of Carondelet Health Network and West Ministry market leader for Ascension Health, said in a statement. “However, as the leader of a hospital system … I know that times like these reconfirm the need for practice drills and I am so very thankful that they worked flawlessly when needed.”
With so many victims needing attention at once, 351-bed UMC potentially could have been overwhelmed with patients, but it was able to get patients into surgery quickly, doctors at the hospital said during a news conference the day after the shooting. One, Dr. Peter Rhee, UMC's medical director of trauma and critical care and professor of surgery at the University of Arizona College of Medicine Department of Surgery, described the scene as “a mini-mass casualty in some senses,” one that was handled ably by UMC's staff and doctors.
“It took 38 minutes for the most critically injured patient to be transferred to the operating room,” Dr. Rainer Gruessner, chairman of the University of Arizona Department of Surgery, said in reference to Giffords, who was shot in the head with the bullet passing through her brain. “Within an hour, six patients were in the operating room,” Gruessner said.
Four trauma surgeons were in-house when patients began arriving the day of the shootings, Hammond said. Rhee and specialists including Dr. G. Michael Lemole Jr., a section chief of neurosurgery at the UA Department of Surgery, were called in once patients had been triaged and their injuries were assessed, Hammond said. Lemole performed the surgery on Giffords with Dr. Martin Weinand, professor of surgery in the neurosurgery section, according to UMC's website.
Speed was key to the early success in treating Giffords. Connie Potter, president of the Trauma Center Association of America, an advocacy group, said that given Giffords' extreme injuries, she was lucky. Potter estimated the odds to be less than 1-in-1,000 that a patient injured that severely would be operated on so quickly by a neurosurgeon.
The hospital's response drew praise from across the country, including from President Barack Obama in a speech at a memorial held in Tucson on Jan. 12. Not all of the attention was welcome, as UMC terminated three clinical-support staff members for inappropriately accessing confidential electronic health records, under a zero-tolerance UMC policy, according to a statement on its website.
Although the hospital did not specify whose records were viewed, the statement was posted on the disaster-response section of UMC's website. A nurse working under contract also was terminated by the nurse's employer, according to the statement. UMC said that it wasn't aware of any patient information being released publicly and that families of the patients whose EHRs were looked at have been notified.
Send us a letter
Have an opinion about this story? Click here to submit a Letter to the Editor, and we may publish it in print.