From inside the cinder block walls of the emergency department at Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, with just 10 rooms total, it was hard to tell that April 15 had gone from simply a normal day to a moment that would rivet the world’s attention on Boston and its famous marathon.
But when a woman arrived in a silent daze, shrapnel and debris embedded in her head and neck, the scope of what transpired became apparent to the doctors and nurses on duty that day.
“My ‘Oh, my god’ moment was when the first patient came into the emergency department,” Maureen Martinez, nursing manager at Mass Eye and Ear, said Wednesday night at a forum at the New Hampshire Technical Institute in Concord.
“She was a young woman. She walked in and was pretty stunned. She couldn’t say anything, she was alone. You could just really see what she went through. You could see the impact of the blast and I’ve never seen that in my experience. It just became real to me.”
Three people died and 260 were injured that day when two homemade bombs exploded near the finish line on Boylston Street. One suspect is awaiting trial in the bombings; another died during a police pursuit.
At Mass Eye and Ear, like the other hospitals in Boston, first word of the bombings came over the radio. Normally, the emergency radio squawks twice a day as a test. “Roger, test,” is the usual response.
“I went to the radio and realized that all I could hear was ‘multiple victims’ and I realized that this was definitely not a drill,” said Deb Trocchi, a registered nurse at the hospital.
Soon, dozens of patients would arrive, carefully sorted at the scene and sent to Mass Eye and Ear with head, neck, eye and ear injuries. Mostly, they saw ruptured eardrums and injuries caused by the blasts’ concussion. There were also eye injuries from shards of glass and shrapnel. It was a far cry from the unstoppable nosebleeds, throat infections — even a chicken bone stuck in the throat — that can mark the passage of a day in the emergency room.
And as they were treating the patients who came through their doors, the doctors and nurses had to stay focused.
“Like a lot of others, my first thought was ‘Where is my friend Kyle who is running? Where is my sister who is eight months pregnant and lives two blocks from the finish line?'” said Dr. Aaron Remenschneider. “We tend to forget now that in the aftermath, things were very much unclear.”
“Trying to make sense of it all was very difficult,” Remenschneider said. “There was a lot of fear. But we can’t really worry about that, that’s not our job. Our job is to take care of the patients.”
Some worked around the clock that Monday and the week, in Martinez’s words, became a blur. Beyond the medical challenges, there were the quirks: The hospital being locked down twice, the FBI agents collecting debris.
“I’d call it organized chaos,” said Trocchi. “You have experience that prepares you for things like this. It’s what we do.”
As a research hospital, Mass Eye and Ear is using what they learn from this group of patients to try to better treat others who experience bombings.
“The victims of that day have been so empowering and so willing to share their stories and take part in the research,” said Remenschneider. “I have been so impressed at their willingness to help a broader community.”