Mitchel Harris, MD Chief of Orthopedic Trauma at the Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA.
Michael Weaver, MD is an is an attending traumatologist on the Orthopedic Trauma Service at Brigham & Women’s Hospital, Boston, MA.
First run in 1897, the Boston Marathon is the oldest, continuous running marathon in America. It is generally considered the most prestigious annual running event that is open to the public, once qualifications are met. Prior to its 117th consecutive running, it had not been generally viewed as a target for a “terrorist attack”. However, on April 15, 2013, two brothers allegedly placed explosive filled backpacks with remote detonator switches within yards of each other and the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The following essay will highlight the extraordinary response by the medical community of Boston.
Boston and Patriots’ Day
Boston is well known as a highly resourced and sophisticated academic medical community. It has 6 Academic Medical Centers (AMC’s): Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIDMC); Boston Medical Center (BMC); Brigham & Women’s Hospital (BWH); Boston Children’s Hospital (CHB); Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH); and Tufts Medical Center (Tufts); each with an American College of Surgeon’s certified level one trauma center. Each of these medical centers provides cradle-to-grave medical services to their respective local communities and function as New England’s regional referral centers.
April 15, 2013 was also Patriots’ Day, a civic holiday celebrated in Massachusetts and Maine, acknowledging the onset of the American Revolution. It marks the start of a weeklong school break in the New England states as well as the running of the Boston Marathon. The Red Sox also schedule an early season home game, so Boston is packed with runners, baseball fans, and associated family and friends. As is the practice with all trauma centers during vacation weeks or academic conference times, travel and call schedules must be juggled to maintain appropriate coverage. This April break was no exception, with three of the five orthopedic trauma service chiefs scheduled away with family related activities. Case in point, I was just beginning my daughter’s campus tour of Vanderbilt University when I received notification of the bombing.
The Boston Athletic Association’s Medical Team, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, the Massachusetts Emergency Management Association, the Boston Police Department, the city’s EMS leaders, and the 6 AMC’s Emergency Departments and Trauma Services, meticulously prepare for this event annually. Their preparation includes table-top planning exercises and simulated terrorist induced scenarios in addition to their standard 5-6 meetings per year for the event. This incredible level of preparation along with the unprecedented heat wave during both the 2004 and 2012 races leading to > 250 participants requiring medical care, had the medical community prepared and on alert.
April 15, 2013, 2:59 pm
At 2:49 on April 15, 2013, the first of two bombs was detonated within a block of the finish line. Scarcely 20 seconds later the second bomb detonated and a full city-wide mass casualty alert was initiated. On this day alone, 151 people were triaged to 1 of the 6 designated trauma centers. Tufts Medical Center was quickly removed from the triage list after an additional bomb threat was made on their campus. As the bombs were placed at ground level, the vast majority of patients sustained isolated – though often devastating – lower extremity injuries. Tourniquets and belts were liberally applied to scores of individuals to control bleeding and stabilize injuries. There were 3 immediate deaths at the scene of the bombing. Remarkably, no additional deaths have been associated with the bombing events aside from the shooting death of the MIT police officer during the aftermath and chase of the alleged perpetrators.
The medical tent was quickly and efficiently converted into a triage station. Numerous first responder bystanders grabbed the injured and initiated civilian transport to the local trauma centers. Within 15 minutes of the first explosion, patients were being brought into the operating rooms at BMC and MGH to complete amputations. On average, it took 17 minutes from the time of the bombing until the first wave of critically injured patients arrived at the EDs of the participating hospitals. The triage effectively distributed the injured such that most hospitals received between 10-40 seriously injured patients. From 3 PM until midnight, the collective efforts of the Boston hospitals committed 36 operating rooms to 50 victims requiring emergency surgery. There were 12 amputations on the first day, and subsequently an additional 3. By the time I returned to BWH from Nashville at 10:30PM that night, the last round of surgeries were nearly complete. This was also true at BIDMC, BMC and MGH.
At each location, trauma teams quickly assumed leadership roles and responsibility for both ED triage and the organization of the operative teams. Over the ensuing 48 hours, all of the trauma centers returned to their full orthopedic trauma staffing, gaining further operative support from faculty returning from out of state. During this time the patient load from the bombing increased significantly. Of the 281 total patients injured, 50 required emergency surgery during the first 24 hours. Many more of these 281 patients required surgeries after the first 24 hours. None of these latter surgeries were life or limb threatening. At each of the hospitals, many of the orthopedic faculty from other subspecialties participated in the early debridements and placement of temporizing external fixations.
Over the past several months, many of the bombing victims have significantly recovered, while those who underwent amputation and those who had reconstructed mangled extremities continue to receive treatment. Many of the lessons we learned from the Lower Extremity Assessment Project (LEAP) studies, from our trauma fellowship training, and years of providing care for trauma victims were invaluable during the response.
The following are the take home lessons we learned from this event:
1. Be Prepared
One of the most important factors in managing a mass casualty situation in the civilian setting is to quickly and effectively organize a treatment team. No single surgeon or isolated clinical service can optimally care for the multiply injured patients. This may require close collaborations with providers who are not typically involved in trauma care. Therefore, it is essential to be well acquainted with personnel in the ED and ICU’s, along with members of the general, vascular and plastic surgery services prior to such an event. These existing relationships will go a long way towards improved collaborations during times of stress. If at all possible, participate in your institution’s disaster planning so that when an event occurs valuable time can be saved and treatment teams can be efficiently created to provide optimal, efficient, appropriate and safe care.
2. Stay Organized
The volume of patients and uncertainty encountered during a mass casualty event can be daunting. The emergency room can be chaotic with dozens of patients arriving in a short period of time. Patients’ identities may be unknown or unclear and mis-identification can be a problem. It is important to have a clear and simple way of identifying multiple unknown patients, as medical record numbers can be cumbersome and confusing. Maintain a simple list with patient names or other identifiers – medical record number, injuries, pertinent medical information and any known allergies – that can be easily shared among the treatment team. We found that those most experienced in orthopaedic trauma care were most effective in the emergency room, performing triage and prioritizing patient care pathways. Meanwhile, other orthopedic faculty performed the majority of the initial debridements and external fixation. After the event it is important to circle back and have multidisciplinary rounds or meetings to continue to coordinate patient care through the sub-acute treatment phase.
Radiographs of a student who was injured at the finish line while cheering on the runners.
3. Be Conservative
In the heat of the moment injuries often look worse than they are. In this case, we were fortunate that the bombs utilized gunpowder and not a more potent explosive. While many of the injuries treated following the marathon bombing were associated with bone loss and neurovascular injury, many of these were able to be salvaged. We focused on early debridement and boney stabilization with follow-up re-assessment by a coordinated team of clinicians from Vascular and Plastic Surgery as needed. Patients were brought back to the operating room early and often for serial wound debridements prior to definitive fixation with early flap coverage when indicated.
4. Have Access to the Right Equipment
The unique medical environment of Boston with six level 1 trauma centers allowed for a massive response to this event. At one point there were 36 operating rooms active across the city dedicated to the care of the injured bombing victims. The majority of initial cases were completion amputations, wound debridements, and external fixation placements. Despite distributing the patients across the city, orthopaedic equipment – particularly external fixator sets – were in short supply. We had situations where the necessary pins, bars and clamps were taken from one room, flash sterilized, and then used in another room. It would have been more beneficial to have opened one set in a centralized area, and then distributed the pieces to each room as needed to be sterilized and used.
The medical response to the Boston Marathon bombing was nothing short of extraordinary. I was proud to be a member of such a great team during this mass casualty event.
This article was revised from an early version in The Newsletter of the Orthopaedic Trauma Association.