Downtown Boston seemed to have been reduced to broken glass, smoke and blood.
Two explosions had rocked the Boston Marathon moments before. Dr. Christina Hernon, a volunteer that day, briskly walked through the chaos, trying to find people to help.
Through the smoke, a medical volunteer came sprinting down the street pushing a man in the wheelchair. The man had two bloody stumps where his legs had been.
“It hit me like a brick wall. I could feel the breath leaving my body,” she said.
Nearly one year later, the trauma of the Boston Marathon bombing looms large in Hernon’s life. She described the chaos, the fear and the self-doubt that plagued her afterward.
Questions weighed her down: Did she do enough? Did she do the right thing?
She told a room filled with Indianapolis emergency workers to consider how
traumatic events can affect even the most seasoned first responders. Remember, then, how it might affect the everyday people going through the same circumstances, she said.
“The city of Boston was traumatized that day; people watching it on TV were traumatized. It was very traumatic. But in the first-responder community, it’s already understood you need to support each other after the fact,” she said. “The more I look at it, it’s so important for people we normally would consider bystanders, that we consider them in the same category as a responder there that day.”
Hernon had been invited to speak at Franciscan St. Francis Health’s southside location to address the MESH Coalition.
The group is a partnership between public safety agencies and private hospitals that works toward a common approach to disaster preparedness.
Hernon’s experience could be an invaluable look into what emergency responders deal with during and after a disaster, said Bobby Courtney, interim CEO of the MESH Coalition.
“She really has an amazing story to tell, and a unique insight into what it’s like to be a provider laying hands on people in the midst of a terrible event such as this,” he said.
Hernon had only shared her story four times, hesitant to relive the horrors that she experienced.
“It’s too personal to share broadly,” she said. “But I agreed to come because it seems like the messages and understanding I’ve taken from that day are in line with what this collaboration and your organization have an interest in trying to understand.”
Hernon had been involved with emergency medicine since she was a high school student. She was certified as a cadet emergency medical technician at age 16, when she first encountered trauma, when a school accident killed one of her classmates.
“My introduction to emergency medicine was watching my high school classmate that I grew up with since kindergarten coughing up blood and dying in the ambulance,” she said.
The incident was devastating, but with the help and guidance of mentors in her school, Hernon decided to stay in the medical field. She continued her work in emergency services, including serving as a dispatcher before finishing medical school at the University of Massachusetts.
Hernon currently works as an assistant professor in the department of emergency medicine and division of medical toxicology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. She still sees patients in the emergency department and is a consultant when a patient is believed to have been poisoned.
Last year, she was making her seventh appearance volunteering at the marathon and was again stationed in one of three large medical tents.
Her location was just past the finish line. It would be half of a block from where the first explosion took place.
The explosion was close enough to the medical tent that the blast whipped the flaps that served as an entrance, she said.
Scenarios immediately went through Hernon’s mind. Maybe the stands collapsed outside or a gas main had blown. Perhaps to recognize Patriot’s Day, someone had fired off a celebratory cannon.
But with the second explosion, she knew her medical services were soon going to be needed. All medical volunteers were directed outside of the tent, to start helping with an unknown number of injured people.
Hernon made it to the scene of the second explosion, where the pavement was so slick with blood that she almost slipped and fell.
She tried to remember her training about emergencies, to slow down to make sure she didn’t fall and become injured herself. She gauged the smoke in the air and could tell it it was coming from an active fire.
Walking through the disaster, she tried to check bandages and marked patients so that transporters knew who was the most injured.
But she felt out of place.
The same was true when she returned to the medical tent. By that time, the cots, floors and any available space was filled with patients with a wide range of injuries.
The body of one of the victims had been brought in as well. Hernon realized that the presence of the dead woman, next to scared and traumatized patients, was serving as a distraction.
So she took blankets and made a series of banners indicating the three levels of triage so ambulances knew where to put patients of varying conditions.
Finally, she asked a volunteer medical student to help with one more sign, which simply said, “Morgue.”
“There was at least one body, and I didn’t know how many more there were. It’s distracting everybody, so we have to move it,” Hernon said.
Within an hour, the main response to the explosions was handled, and all patients had been taken to area hospitals. The volunteers in the medical tent were told to clear out, to let the bomb squad check for additional explosions.
Hernon and others walked to nearby Boston Common. With nowhere else to go and no other way to get home, they went to the first restaurant they could find that was open.
Sitting at a booth and talking over the day’s events, the group at least started addressing how they had been affected.
But that process would take much longer.
For almost a week, Hernon struggled with doubts about the day. She wondered if she had actually done anything, seeing that her main contribution was making signs out of blankets.
Not until she attended a debriefing for other first responders that she realized that nearly everyone who was there that day had the same feelings of inadequacy.
More than 260 people were injured in the bombings. Three people died, and all of them were dead on the scene. That indicates they did do good that day, Hernon said.
“You look at the bottom line of the event — whatever we did, it worked. The system worked,” she said.
More importantly, Hernon also found that the spectators, the business owners, the people with no emergency training caught in the situation struggled with similar doubts.
Six months after the explosion, the restaurant where Hernon sat on April 15 held an event for first responders who were there.
Hernon was speaking with the manager who was working that day. He spoke about how he and his employees all took off their belts and used them as tourniquets for injured bystanders.
They all wondered if they had actually done anything useful.
Hernon reassured him that everyone did the best they could in that situation and that he had done the right thing. He had made a difference.
“And the weight that he had carried for six months fell off of him. He started to cry,” she said.
Hernon reiterated that it is useful for those in the medical field to remember this story and to think about the people outside the medical field that nonetheless find themselves in the middle of these disasters.
“It’s important to consider people like that, and the impact to them, as people we would normally characterize as a bystander. How will it affect them?” she said.