By Jamie Katz, Sr. VP and General Counsel, BIDMC
The first bomb went off at 2:49 pm on April 15, 2013, the second about twelve seconds later. The BIDMC Emergency Department received notice of the bombings within two minutes and the first patient arrived eleven minutes later. Within a short time, more than fifty BIDMC clinicians and staff came back to the hospital voluntarily to help out in a variety of departments. The first BIDMC patient went into surgery within forty seven minutes of the initial blast. Of the twenty four patients that BIDMC treated that day, fourteen went through the Operating Room by the end of the evening. Ultimately sixteen patients citywide received amputations, some of them double.
BIDMC began implementing its Emergency Operations plan within minutes after getting word of the blasts. Emergency Department staff erected a decontamination tent for the first patient who arrived in case any hazards were detected and all of the victims coming into the hospital received Geiger counter scans—staff knew nothing about the nature and scope of the bombings, about the attackers, or whether additional attacks might occur.
Within fifteen minutes of getting word of the bombings, staff set up a command center to allow BIDMC personnel to communicate clearly and quickly with hospital staff, as well as with federal, state, and city agencies. The command center gave us a better understanding of what was happening outside the hospital walls while also making sure we could keep track of what was going on inside.
At the outset, our clinical leaders had a series of tasks. They had to figure out how to manage the ED patients who were already there when the bombing victims started to arrive. Each one of our physicians, trainees, nurses, and other staff had to receive appropriate instructions on their deployment in the most effective manner. Clinicians had to ensure that there were sufficient Operating Room capacity and staff to support the Emergency Department, ORs, critical care units and clinical support services. Most importantly, the clinicians had to evaluate, identify, and transport the most seriously injured victims to ORs or Intensive Care Units as quickly as possible.
The vast majority of the 264 victims transported to hospitals that day went to the six Boston-area Level I Trauma centers. While three victims died at the scene of the bombing, remarkably, none of those who survived transport to hospitals did. In the end, while far too many were hurt far too badly, the situation could have resulted in much worse damage. Boston area hospitals, EMS, Public Health and law enforcement had practiced disaster drills so many people who responded were prepared for an emergency. Also, the bombs went off as shifts were changing in hospitals, meaning many people were still around to help. And ironically, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have yielded something positive back home—we know much better how to handle damage from bomb blasts.
Once the bombing victims became patients at BIDMC and other Boston area hospitals, all of the hospitals faced extraordinary circumstances and events. Many of the injuries, particularly the amputations, were complex and involved multiple system interventions within the patients. These were, after all, not planned and expected surgeries, but surgeries conducted on jagged open wounds, full of shrapnel, dirt and debris, and severely hemorrhaging, damaged limbs.
BIDMC caregivers also quickly recognized the deeper wounds that did not show on the surface. On the first night after the bombings, one of the surgeons in charge was rounding on the patients and stopped to talk with a young woman. He asked her how she was doing. “Okay here,” she said, pointing to her body. “Not so good here,” she said, pointing to her head. At first, he thought she was referring to a head wound. He quickly recognized, though, that she was referring to her own psychological state.
From that point on, our clinical leadership put a Mass Casualty service in place. Surgeons from different specialties joined with chaplains, social workers, physical therapists, occupational therapists, and psychiatric clinicians to see patients. These teams visited each patient daily to evaluate his or her condition and determine the next steps. This service follows them through their outpatient care.
Our clinicians worked hard to tend to the entire patient holistically and provide all of the dimensions of the care that our patients needed. For some patients, that meant shielding them from the large number of well-wishers that came to the hospital. A day or two after the bombings, Gov. Patrick came through the hospital in a welcome show of support for the victims and our caregivers. At the door to one of our patient’s room, the Governor appropriately asked one of our nurses if the patient in the room would be willing to talk with him. The nurse went in and talked to the patient, then came out and told the Governor that the patient would be happy to see him. As Gov. Patrick moved past, his entourage began to follow. The nurse put up her arms and said, “She said she’s willing to see the Governor.” The entourage stayed outside.
Even as our clinicians dealt with a surge in patients, our communications staff dealt with a flood of press inquiries and demands. We received well over a thousand inquiries from local newspapers to an Australian radio station, some seeking information and others seeking access to clinicians or victims. Our communications staff struggled to maintain control of the press—where individual reporters knew, or identified, BIDMC physicians, they contacted them directly, sometimes accomplishing an end-run around our communications staff. Once our Emergency Department chief appeared live on a 7 a.m. CBS news show, the requests for interviews escalated. This flood of press requests came in through phone calls, pagers, e-mail, text requests, and social media. Our communications department developed a triage system to handle the influx, but even that system did little to unburden our staff.
The press demands evolved and mutated daily. Some families had absolutely no interest in publicity and, over time, kept a tight cocoon around their loved ones in the hospital. Other individuals and families wanted different kinds of publicity, for different reasons. Those individuals and families worked with our communications staff in some instances, while others, worked with reporters they selected. They were, of course, perfectly within their rights to work with members of the press, but it made the work of our staff more complicated as they tried to sift through which patients wanted what, and how to keep appropriate information private.Reporters, of course, did not always follow the guidelines established for them. Some reporters got in and went from door to door or office to office, seeking people to talk to. One national network called to request access for a reporter to speak to victims in the hospital. Our communications people explained that no reporters were allowed to meet with victims yet. A short time after that, one of the network’s reporters was escorted out of the building after having gotten close to entering a victim’s room.
Meanwhile, well meaning movie stars, television celebrities, motivational speakers, politicians, and other dignitaries requested visits to the victims in the hospital. In almost all cases, those requests were turned down at the request of patients.
Beyond the traditional press, social media proved a significant benefit for BIDMC. We were able to use our website and Facebook pages to let patients know that the hospital was open amidst the difficulties following the bombings. We were able to tell people how to find out about appointments on Facebook, or to give warnings of parking problems or other issues on our website.
In the first few days after the bombings, BIDMC shared a common experience with other Boston hospitals as we all struggled to provide appropriate care to patients and families and to manage the press. On Thursday, April 18, however, BIDMC began a journey down a different path.
On that Thursday night, the first suspect, Tamarlan Tsarnaev, was transported to BIDMC where he was declared dead shortly after arriving. On Friday night, the second suspect, Dzohkar Tsarnaev, was brought to BIDMC following his capture. His arrival changed the landscape dramatically.
Immediately upon the Tsarnaev’s arrival, security concerns became paramount. Would anyone take action against the hospital while he was there, or try to get him out? For BIDMC, the questions were more complicated because we have two campuses. Tsarnaev was on the West Campus. If we moved most of our security to the West Campus, did we endanger the East? Meanwhile, we had the families of victims still in the hospital—we did not expect they would all be comfortable with the alleged bomber being treated at the hospital. Very quickly, BIDMC security personnel worked with the FBI, ATF, State Police, Boston Police, Watertown, and Transit Police to provide security at multiple sites. Happily, within a couple of days of Tsarnaev’s arrival, we determined we could loosen security at most sites, except for the building where he was treated.
The arrival of Tsarnaev also meant that some of the impacts we had seen earlier in the week became even more pronounced. The press demands went back up. And the full impact of social media quickly became obvious.
The press worked hard to get information not just about the victims from that point on, but about Tsarnaev. Our security personnel regularly cleared press photographers from the roofs of several parking garages, where photographers with telephoto lenses sought to get pictures of Tsarnaev while he lay in the hospital. And one newspaper offered a BIDMC employee $5,000 for a picture of Tsarnaev in the hospital.
Pictures, indeed, posed the first major test for me. By Saturday, April 20, when I went into the hospital, pictures of the two suspects in or around the hospital had started showing up on the Internet. Because the release of the photos represented potential breaches of privacy as well as violations of hospital policy, we had to try to track down the origin of the photos in the face of our enormous clinical and administrative demands.
The first photo that came to our attention was of the first suspect, Tamarlan Tsarnaev, after he had died in the hospital. It sped around the web and supposedly was put on the front page of a small newspaper. No major newspaper would run it, because it was never corroborated. The photo was taken in a room within the hospital—but one that, as soon as Tamarlan Tsarnaev was brought in, went under the full control of federal authorities. Federal agents and Boston Police were in the room and no hospital personnel were allowed in the room without express authorization. Given the characteristics of the photo and the picture it conveyed, it quickly became clear to both federal authorities and BIDMC leadership that the photo was taken on a cell phone by someone in law enforcement.
A second cell phone photo circulated on the web, but we quickly determined that it showed the second suspect, the younger Tsarnaev, in an ambulance. The photo may have exhibited bad taste and bad judgment, but the photo did not come from within BIDMC so we did not pursue the photographer.
The last photograph became the most problematic. It depicted the younger Tsarnaev within the hospital, after his surgeries on his first night in the hospital. Again, the photo’s resolution suggested it was a cell phone photo. In this case, both law enforcement and hospital personnel were present where the photo was taken, on and off for a period. The area was controlled by the federal agents but numerous BIDMC clinicians had come through the unit in the course of providing care to Tsarnaev. As a result, I interviewed those hospital personnel who had been involved when it appeared the photo was taken. Federal agents also conducted some inquiries. In the end, the federal authorities believed that the photo was taken by a hospital employee, and we believe it was taken by a member of law enforcement—in the end, we will never know whose phone it came from.
Just as the press and photos became more problematic, the impact of social media became far more profound. Once Tsarnaev was in the hospital, BIDMC staff could not release any information about him, including his medical condition, without consulting with federal officials. As we started receiving endless press and public inquiries about his status, we conferred with federal officials, and the FBI subsequently sent out tweets on the FBI/DOJ Twitter account that announced Tsarnaev’s medical condition.
Meanwhile, Facebook became a forum for some of our clinicians to vent. Upon Tsarnaev’s arrival in the ED at BIDMC, some of those treating him or in close proximity to him became quite unhappy about his presence. A number of clinicians made derogatory statements about the patient and BIDMC’s role in treating him, with some of their co-workers indicating “Likes” of those posts and other BIDMC readers becoming very unhappy, arguing that BIDMC caregivers had an obligation to treat all patients to the best of their ability. Certain managers brought Facebook posts to my attention, feeling strongly that the posts were disruptive to their unit and inappropriate for BIDMC employees. We did review a number of Facebook pages, but only for inappropriately revealed private information about Tsarnaev or other patients. While I and another lawyer reviewed some tasteless and offensive posts, as long as they consisted solely of opinions and did not inappropriately reveal private information, we took no action against the writers.
The most dramatic social media event occurred a few days after Tsarnaev came into the hospital. I received a call late one night—the BIDMC website had been flooded by messages about Tsarnaev. The messages, though, were most unexpected.
“God is with you Djokhar, we pray for you . . . We stand for Justice”
“Praying for Dzhokahar, like for my brother. Pliiz take care of him! Czhokhar, we all r with you. . . “
“If we write to him will you deliver the letters?”
“DZHOKHAR TSARNAEV IS INNOCENT, INNOCENT, INNOCENT!!!!!!! FREE DZHOHKHAR!!!!”
“dzhokar is innocent . . please take good care of him. He is a great man dzhokar we love you . . .”
“Sending all my love to Dzhokhar and his family.”
The sudden influx of supporting e-mails made it clear that there was a concerted effort to overwhelm our website with these messages. We had messages about the victims falling next to messages about freeing Tsarnaev. For the next few days, we had to regularly spend time and effort cleaning the site of similar messages. Ultimately a court, not BIDMC, will determine Tsarnaev’s guilt or innocence. As distasteful as some of the messages were, they certainly might fit somewhere in cyberspace—just not in an attack aimed at taking down our website or making it wholly offensive to many of our Facebook users, including employees and patients.
We are now six months past the bombings. We have tried to absorb some of the lessons from the experience. Preparation, training, and drilling to prepare for a disaster are critical. Making sure our leaders and teams communicate, and work smoothly together are also important—which also requires that people know, very quickly, what their roles are and will be. The importance of clear communications both internally and with outside agencies cannot be overstated. And neither can the risk from camera phones.
There is another cautionary note to add. The “Boston Strong” mantra certainly has a strong foundation based on how the first responders, healthcare providers, law enforcement community all reacted to the bombings, coupled with the enormous amount of public support the victims received. That phrase, however, while it fits what happened in the post-bombing period, should not mask some on-going difficulties.
In particular, we should not fool ourselves into believing that all is well for many of those most affected by the bombings. Some of our caregivers are still struggling. They lived through what was comparable to a war zone. Some of them still feel guilt, feeling they should have done more. Some of them are still haunted by the extent of the injuries and damage they saw. And some of them struggle with the care they provided for Dzohkar Tsarnaev, feeling they did the right thing professionally but fearing that many of their friends and neighbors would judge them harshly for doing what they did. And many of the victims, particularly those with amputations, still have long, difficult recovery periods ahead of them. Their worlds changed in an instant and they now face life with pain, difficulties, and sometimes financial burdens that they never imagined. Their medical care, while dramatically better than in times past, is still fragmented and some of them will bounce from doctor’s office to hospital to physical therapist to mental health provider, with no single entity providing care coordination. So while we can all use Boston Strong as a symbol of pride, the slogan should not become a burden or a standard that caregivers or victims feel they have to live up to.
Finally, I will leave you with one lasting image from last spring. On the Saturday just after Tsarnaev became a patient at BIDMC, I went to the hospital and walked to the building where he was being treated for a meeting. As I approached the building, I saw a group of eight or so people to my right who were entering an adjacent building. Something about the group seemed out of the ordinary, so I took a second, longer look. The group of men all wore red tee shirts that read Semper Fi Fund. Each one had lost a limb—some arms, some legs. They were all veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, on their way to visit some of the victims in our hospital to support them and give them tangible evidence that a good life could follow even after an amputation.
With that image still fresh in my mind, I went through multiple gauntlets of security, up to the SICU where Tsarnaev was being treated. When I entered that area, a number of physicians and nurses huddled around him, talking and adjusting things on and around him. The clinicians treated him while they were surrounded by federal agents and police officers.
I was struck by the simultaneous presence, in our hospital, of men who fought and suffered grievous injuries from hostile soldiers and IEDs overseas in order to protect Americans from terrorist activities, as well as a suspected terrorist who was ultimately charged with inflicting similar damage on the victims in our hospital. And despite the enormity of the charges against Tsarnaev, and the carnage he may have participated in, our doctors and nurses did what they did best and what they were supposed to do—they treated him to the best of their ability, giving the same kind of care they would have given to anyone.
Boston, and too many people, lived through a wrenching, difficult, tragic event, but what our caregivers did during that time—for victims and the second suspect alike—spoke to our deep, enduring commitment to care for our patients first, whoever they are, wherever they come from. The emotions inspired by the Marathon bombings were undoubtedly powerful and complicated for many individuals. What BIDMC accomplished is not so complicated—we took care of people, very disparate people, with exemplary care under very difficult circumstances.
Jamie W. Katz is the General Counsel and a Senior Vice President for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts. He had previously served as the Interim Chief Compliance Officer and Deputy General Counsel at BIDMC. Before joining BIDMC, Mr. Katz was the General Counsel for the Commonwealth Health Insurance Connector Authority between 2006 (the inception of the Connector Authority) and October, 2010. In that role, Mr. Katz was the chief legal adviser to the Connector Authority, the first state entity dedicated to implementing healthcare reform. Prior to joining the Connector, Mr. Katz served as the Chief of the Public Charities Division of the Attorney General’s Office. Mr. Katz also served as an Assistant Attorney General in the Attorney General’s Administrative Law Division and as an enforcement attorney for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He also was an associate at Hale & Dorr and a founding partner of a small Boston law firm. Mr. Katz has extensive healthcare, insurance, trial, and appellate experience, and he has acted as a mediator and arbitrator in numerous matters. Mr. Katz has presented at numerous national and local conferences and seminars. He graduated from Harvard College and the University of Virginia Law School. He has written professional articles in the areas of healthcare, charities, environmental law, and disabilities law. Mr. Katz is also the author of numerous non-fiction pieces published in newspapers and magazines as well as two novels published by major publishers, Dead Low Tide (finalist for a Shamus Best First Mystery award) and A Summer for Dying.