When surgeon Dr. Jeffrey Kalish heard about the Orlando shooting, he flashed back to the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombings, when he rushed to save victims’ legs.
“The entire thing is playing out exactly as the marathon did,” said Kalish, a doctor at Boston Medical Center. “First, there’s complete sadness, complete disbelief. Then you see names with faces; you start realizing who these people are.”
“It just brought back all of the feelings that I was going through,” he said.
From Boston to Aurora, Colo., hospital staff and survivors of previous tragedies have responded in various ways this week, joining together for services and reaching out to their Orlando counterparts through letters and emails.
Three Boston hospitals, each of which treated many marathon bombing victims three years ago, held special services so that staff could grieve and show solidarity.
“Each time this happens, it does trigger for many, many people the trauma of the first event,” said Rev. John Polk, director of chaplaincy at Massachusetts General Hospital, which held a service Monday. “That’s exactly why we need to have services like this and bring the community together.”
Polk said 100 people gathered at the hospital’s chapel, with the crowd spilling out the door. The Orlando shooting especially hit home, he said, because the shooter invoked the Boston Marathon bombings in a 911 call during his killing spree.
Meanwhile, survivors of the marathon bombings, and health care workers and first responders who helped the victims will write letters of “condolence, comfort, and inspiration” to Orlando through an effort coordinated by the Massachusetts Resiliency Center, according to Executive Director Kermit Crawford.
The center, created to help people affected by the marathon bombings, is also planning to bring together survivors with members of Boston’s gay, Latino, and Muslim communities, he said.
Events like Orlando “can rip the scab off a wound that is slow to heal,” said Crawford, a psychologist. “Active coping is really important. … To change the pain and suffering to new experience, and to a benefit and blessing for others, is truly empowering.”
Kalish, who performed copious surgeries to save bombing victims’ legs, as well as four amputations, said he imagines that medical staff in Orlando “are in robot mode right now.”
“All they want to do is make these survivors better, and make these bereft family members feel better,” he said. “But at some point, that’s going to go away, and they’re going to have to think about what they saw.”
“The part we don’t want to lose sight of,” Kalish said, is that everyone affected by the trauma — including police, paramedics, and hospital staff — “they need to seek help for themselves. If they spiral badly in the beginning, it may not be recoverable.”
Rev. Bob Flory, director of spiritual care at Children’s Hospital Colorado, which treated victims of the Aurora movie theater shooting, said he set up a candle and flowers in the hospital chapel, so that people could come in and pray or reflect on what happened in Orlando. He said he has reached out to a hospital spiritual care director there, and is drafting a letter to his own hospital staff to remind them that counseling is available in case the recent shootings bring up old wounds.
Past trauma can rise to the surface quickly, he said: Just a couple of weeks ago, a patient died in the operating room. A nurse there “found herself collapsing. She didn’t know what death she was reacting to” — the present one, or the time that a little girl wounded in Aurora died in the hospital.
Flory said he hadn’t thought about the Columbine High School shooting in a long time until Sunday. “As I watched those people standing behind the yellow tape in Orlando, I just remembered the kids standing behind yellow tape in Columbine, and the parents waiting to hear. Those visuals that you see trigger the visuals that you saw in your own tragedy.”
“Your previous experience comes alive,” he said, “and you need to be aware of it and create another healing moment.”