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An injured woman wheeled away on a stretcher after a shooting incident at Dawson College in Montreal, Wednesday, Sept. 13, 2006. (CP / Paul Chiasson) A woman is evacuated during a shooting incident at Dawson College in Montreal on Wednesday. Dr. Tarek Razek, the Montreal General hospital's trauma director, updates reporters on the conditions of the wounded shooting victims on Saturday, Sept. 16, 2006.

Montreal medical workers, the unheralded heroes


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Canadian Press

Date: Sat. Sep. 16 2006 11:16 PM ET

MONTREAL — This is the story of an unheralded army -- the soldiers of life who battled to defeat the self-described "Angel of Death."

Gunman Kimveer Gill, who blasted his way into a Montreal college, stole the life of a young girl and grabbed national and international headlines for several days.

But local medical workers toiled in anonymity to steal something back -- the pieces of his gory legacy, one saved patient at a time.

The death toll remained stalled at one single victim as they worked around the clock, first in speeding ambulances, then in blood-soaked trauma units and finally in crowded operating rooms.

The announcement of impending chaos boomed over the loudspeakers at Montreal General Hospital shortly after 12:45 p.m. Wednesday: "Code Orange."

Patients might have missed it. But to hospital staff it was an unmistakable call to action, one they'd heard just once in the last decade -- a preventive warning on 9-11.

Nurse Nancy Branco, who was off-duty but visiting a supervisor Wednesday, said in an interview she understood the significance immediately.

"There's been a disaster somewhere,'' she recalls thinking at the time.

"There will be an influx of patients.''

In the parking lot, just outside the entrance and down the corridor from the trauma unit, the ambulances began rolling in.

To be more precise, they screeched in.

Emergency drivers normally drive fast but this time about a dozen of them literally tore into the parking lot at such speed that hospital staff feared they would smash into the building's brick facade.

"We thought they were going to come through the wall,'' said one worker.

Inside, nurses scrambled to clear room for the impending masses.

They dashed from bed to bed, scanning the personal charts of existing patients to determine which ones could be moved upstairs from the ground-level emergency ward.

Porters arrived to whisk away the less critical ones, wheeling their beds into the elevator and up to rooms on the fifth floor.

Then the victims arrived. At least 11 of them rolled down the hallway.

One had taken a gun blast in the head, others had gaping abdomen wounds, some oozed blood from their chest, and a number had limbs punctured by bullets. As of Saturday, none of the wounded had died but two remained in comas and were in critical condition in the hospital's intensive care unit.

"It was this wave of patients,'' Anne Thomas, interim head nurse at the hospital, said in an interview.

Thomas said two of the on-duty nurses had children at Dawson.

"They had to see each patient, take a deep breath, and say, 'Okay, I can go on.'

"(Trauma treatment) is always hard, but it's even harder when you're thinking the next ambulance could be carrying your child.''

That horror scenario averted, hospital staff raced to their patients while struggling to shake other fears: Was there another shooter on the loose? Was it an act of terrorism? Would the hospital need additional security?

But any meandering thoughts and scare scenarios in their minds were cut short by the grim onslaught of real-life sights and sounds before their eyes.

One patient hollered and described in vivid detail what had happened at the school. One asked to see his girlfriend.

Pools of blood were splattered across the white floor of the ambulatory unit, a classroom-sized chamber where the three most critical patients were cared for on beds beneath cream-coloured X-ray machines.

"It was a bit like a war zone for a while,'' Branco said. "A controlled war zone.''

A personal team attended to each patient. The more critical ones had two nurses and two doctors hovering above them, their blue or green hospital scrubs soaked crimson with blood stains.

Dr. Bruno Bernardin raised his hand and shouted out to the assembled staff: "I'm the TTL (trauma team leader)! Everything goes through me."

Shouting would have to do. Bernardin hadn't had time to put on the brightly coloured vest identifying him as the unit leader, the one responsible for checking on each patient and supervising their care.

While nurses and doctors checked for bullet wounds, severed arteries, torn blood vessels and broken limbs, Bernardin walked around to classify the patients: which ones would get CT scans, which ones would get X-rayed, and which ones would go straight to the operating room.

Off-duty doctors and nurses rushed in from home after hearing the news on TV or the radio.

Like all her colleagues, Branco was assigned a patient.

She dressed key injuries and immediately removed a tourniquet _ a tightly wound bandage that can stop a limb from bleeding but require its amputation if kept on too long.

Through it all, nurses also provided that most critical staple of trauma treatment: tender loving care. The young nurse remembers chatting up her patient.

"I said, 'I know you've gone through a great ordeal,''' she recalled.

"'But you're in the hospital now. We're taking care of you. You're safe now.'''

Branco has lived through the nurse-patient relationship from the other end -- way more than she'd care to remember.

There were times in her childhood when she lived in the hospital more often than in her own home while her mom battled a chronic long-term illness.

She says the kindness she received back then inspired her to become a nurse.

Branco's method of treatment includes using any humour necessary to help a bullet-scarred patient ease the pain with laughter.

Her patient reacted to that approach on Wednesday: "You see? You have to listen to your grandmother,'' she told her patient.

"She was right. You always need to wear clean underwear when you leave the house. You never know what might happen.''

She drew a smile.

There was a much stronger reaction from the patient later as frantic relatives rushed into the hospital.

While waiting for an angiogram, the patient had asked Branco to get in touch with a parent and a friend.

Branco grabbed the nearest phone and called the patient's mother. There was stunned silence on the other end of the line while the nurse relayed the news: "There's been a shooting...Your (child) was injured, but (is) very stable _ stable enough to give me your number and ask me to call you.''

The sobbing began immediately once Branco had finished with the details. The nurse interrupted the cries with a warning.

"You can't drive,'' she told the mother.

"Get someone else to drive you. Take a taxi. (Your child) is being cared for, and we don't want you to get hurt on your way here.''

Soon after, the patient's mother, father, uncle and cousin were exchanging signs with each other through a Plexiglas divider while hospital officials prepared to deliver anesthesia.

The patient waved. That prompted more tears from the mother, and the patient cried too.

Inside the surgery room, the beeping sound of the cardiac monitor was drowned out by the rapid-fire chatter of the operating team: two nurses, an anesthesiologist, the chief surgeon, and several residents and technicians, all of them milling busily around the table and the bright overhead lights.

Surgeons spent days carrying out a torrent of tasks: cleaning wounds, fixing bones, stabilizing organs and reattaching the tattered tendons, severed muscles and countless blood vessels sliced apart by an assassin's bullets.

Branco reassured her patient one last time outside the operating room door -- then said goodbye.

Gill, who described his hatred of humanity and declared himself the "Angel of Death'' on his website, acted alone in the carnage, which claimed the life of Anastasia DeSousa, 18.

But his hatred met with plenty of resistance -- from an outraged country, from scores of frantic relatives, from countless friends who converged on the hospital and from the army of life that fought to save the people they love.

Branco didn't hesitate when asked why she became a nurse.

In a split-second reply, she spoke of her mother and recalled the many hospital workers who showered her with kindness when she was a child.

"When I got older, I just wanted to care...I care."

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