Two weeks ago today, Boston wasn’t a very different city in many regards. The Red Sox were still crushing the competition and spring weather was still blossoming. The traffic was still deplorable. Today, though, the flags outside the Cambridge Fire Department stations fly at half-mast. There are twice as many guards outside Massachusetts General Hospital. There is a sprawling monument in Copley Square.
I’m struck as I write this, by the news of two explosions activated at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. The date is April 15, 2013.
“3 dead and at least 144 injured in explosion at the finish line” reads the headline across my TV as live interviews and other comprehensive coverage detail what occurred at around 2:45pm today in Boston. New information comes every half hour.
I work as an anesthesia technician at Massachusetts General Hospital. It’s a job I know all too well. During summers home from UMass I began working under the supervision of a diverse team, helping stock and maintain the anesthesia equipment in and around the main ORs. I’ve since graduated, had a stint teaching English abroad in Spain and interned at Rolling Stone in New York. Yet I wound up back at MGH again after they offered a full time position. I’ve climbed the ladder, so to speak, and am now in charge of the offsite locations — handling MRI, In Vitro Fertilization, Radiology and other extraneous sites for the anesthesia department.
Marathon Monday was a normal day and I was wrapping up my shift in Radiology. The doctors were finishing the case of a patient who needed a feeding tube and I was coming from the Grey Workroom. I had a circuit, mask and temperature probe as I found my way through the darkened Radiology hallway into a room simply known as PR64. I’d counted several IV start kits, along with a few syringes and was off to the Lunder Building to restock the anesthesia cart. I was about halfway there when Catherine, an orthopedic nurse, met me as I approached.
“There were two explosions at the end of the Boston marathon.”
I thought about bombs, Newbury Street and walked on.
It was only after I picked up the syringes in the workroom that I started feeling the urgency of the situation. It took me a moment to realize the seriousness of her tone, the surprise in her voice. Explosions at the end of the marathon. I made my way to PR64. I figured there would be something on the news if it were anything serious.
When I Googled the phrase “Marathon explosion” the first image that came up was a live streaming view of the street itself — the finish line banner still wisping in the wind. Blood-stained glitter on the asphalt. Smoke in the air. This was big.
The time was 2:50 p.m.
After convincing the rest of the procedure team to watch the video on the computer, I made my way back to the Grey Workroom. As I walked past every room, there was a growing recognition of the situation’s vastness in the tired looks from nurses and OR assistants. It was like an earthquake hit but we hadn’t felt it yet. There were two bombs confirmed at this point and a threat that a third had hit the JFK Library. All scheduled cases were cancelled immediately and patients who were on the floor at that point were sent back. My mom, who works as a nurse, was surprised to see a patient she’d just cleared for surgery come back so quickly. We prepped the entire building — some fifty rooms — as though the explosions were going to continue all day. All hands on deck.
After speaking with my boss about staying a few hours late — a decision I’d already made several hours earlier to synch up with a date I’d planned, but was now for very different reasons — I felt myself go into automatic mode. When there was an operating room out, I made sure I was on my way to help turn it over. Pediatric rooms, OB/GYN rooms, burn rooms and vascular room were prepped in a matter of moments. The anesthesia team needed to concentrate on the emergencies at hand. That meant 50 operating rooms needed to be sterilized — the cords, the breathing circuit, the syringes, the fluids, the wires and gauze. The motions were automatic, muscle recognition.
Before long, I realized three hours had passed. We’d completed five amputations — one hand and four legs.
Those of us left to build the A-line transducer bags were reduced to formulaic conversation made up of simple sentences mixed with vague uneasiness. We knew our movements better than we knew each other, but this grew into a new kind of respect. That afternoon, we made about 60 IV bags in total and I was there for about 40 of them. We were all in it together. All hands on deck.
The images of the afternoon, still ingrained in my memory, now seem surreal. I saw a woman come in on a stretcher with no calves. I saw a man wheeled in with leg muscles flapping around like red ribbons. Bones were sticking out like candy canes.
Leaving the hospital that night after a 13 hour shift, I was met at my apartment by a friend with a six pack of beer. He had no words for me as we popped the bottles and turned on the TV. The two of us, along with his dog Roxo, watched as the news unfolded. This was when it all came at me full force. I hadn’t seen the TV coverage all day. Seeing the nation watch the city of Boston and its hospitals…Now I knew just how big this was.
When my friend left, he told me to write some of it down, that writing could help organize my thoughts. He was right.
“We got him,” were the words spoken by Mayor Tom Menino on the night of April 19, 2013 — words that sunk into the collective chest of Boston as a city sighed and breathed easier.
The entire manhunt had ended that evening as law enforcement from around the nation closed in on a Watertown neighborhood to surround a boat on Franklin Street. As an FBI special agent would later tell me, the tarp had been moved and there was fresh blood on the side. After this sight was reported by the boat’s owner, the ensuing arrest capped off a nightmarish week. It was a story of domestic terrorism in New England.
As thousands of police and federal agents left the Watertown area, they were met by cheering civilians and residents — some of whom were breathing fresh air for the first time all day. There had been a lockdown in effect since early that morning for Boston and its surrounding cities — including Watertown, Waltham, Belmont, Allston, Brighton, Newton and Cambridge. As a resident of Cambridge, I was right there in the middle of it.
Since my apartment overlooks Massachusetts Ave on the Cambridge/Somerville town line, a usual Friday morning consists of being woken up by a barrage of horns and swearing from the steady flow of traffic. Friday is the start of my weekend from the ORs at Massachusetts General Hospital, where it had been a grizzly week already. That morning, I woke up hung over and noticed my sister had called. Ignoring it, I turned back over. She called again. I never hear from my sister in the morning and two calls meant something was up, so I groggily answered. She started to tell me, “Don’t go outsi…” but I was up and at the window before she could finish her sentence. I peered out at an empty stretch of road. No beeps, no swearing, no cars. A lone armored police van rolled by.
I stayed in touch with many people during the day. Friends and colleagues texted, messaged, or Skyped from as far away as Kenya, Germany and California. As the day trudged on, my local friends became more and more antsy. Soon it was a similar situation to Monday night — another six pack with my friend John and Roxo. This time, though, we watched as the governor and mayor lifted the lockdown decree. We were finally allowed to go outside.
Ten minutes later, Jim Armstrong, the CBS reporter on the ground in Watertown, began describing gunfire and explosions. After a tense hour of not knowing, he came on again to describe a much more relaxed scene. “People are applauding now,” I remember him saying, “and the law enforcement are on their way out. All of the police that came in are moving in the other direction now, on the way out.”
The news couldn’t have come sooner. John, Roxo and I went out to Mass. Ave and soon decided to celebrate with neighbors across the street at the Dubliner Pub. All eyes were hypnotized by CNN and it felt like everyone was still on edge. There, we watched Obama address the nation — the entire bar was all ears during his speech and erupted in applause at the end — and dozens of people pour out onto the streets of Watertown to support the law enforcement. It was like watching a parade. John and I were just satisfied to see the week come to a close.
Two larger men sat on the left hand side of me, and I could hear the closest one say, “Nice job tonight, Mark.” Figuring the men to be officers, I extended my pint glass in cheers. As it turns out, they weren’t just any officers, but FBI special agents from the Crisis Negotiation Unit in Quatico, Virginia. They’d came for a celebratory beer and shepherd’s pie. “Much needed,” the man explained.
Over the course of the next hour, we traded stories of the week. Mine revolved around work at the hospital while his revolved around the action that night. He pushed his pint aside to show me pictures of the infamous boat he’d taken from the roof of a Watertown home. He’d been 10 feet away just a half hour ago.
We developed a sense of camaraderie over those beers, but instead of dwelling on the harsh present, we told stories from the past. As it turned out, they were as interested in my gory OR stories as I was in their FBI careers. The older agent was nearing retirement and had no qualms relaying details of some of the outrageous events he’d experienced.
“You remember the journalist that was taken in Iraq awhile back, right around the time of Katrina? Paul something… Hullems? Something like that. Well, my job was to go down to Memphis, Tennessee, right around the Graceland area because Barbara, the sister of this journalist was about to get a call from the kidnappers in Iraq. They were going to ask her for a ransom. For some reason, we were talking about our claims to fame and I knew a guy who broke the land speed record. Well, I got to talking with the sister and she told me a whopper. She told us her claim to fame was a trump card that would beat all trump cards. She told us she was the last person to hold Elvis’s penis.”
The bar erupted in laughter.
“Well, working in the OR, you’ll appreciate this.” he told me. “So at the hospital where they pronounced him dead, they had just wrapped up the last bit of CPR. The trauma doctor turned to Barbara and told her to get the rest of the fluids out of him. So there she goes, grabs it, puts the catheter in, pushes all the fluid out, and with a final shake, she puts it down. Last woman to ever touch his penis.”
The bar, at this point, was doubled over in laughter and more pints were being pushed our way. The air was light and the spirit was golden. We were finally able to laugh again.
It was the end of a nightmare week in Boston and I walk away prouder than ever to be a part of this community. Be it as a casual freelancer strolling around the city or an anesthesia technician at Mass General Hospital, I will always be proud to call Boston home.