This article is in partnership with Greenville Health System. Photos by Alan Francis, GHS.
Friday, I laid on the couch of the University of South Carolina School of Medicine Greenville (USCSOMG) with blood streaming down my face.
A few feet away, a woman lay in a puddle of blood. A man hid behind an oversized plant to my right. About half a dozen other victims were sprawled across the floor or slumped in chairs and on stairs in various stages of injury. Most of them were young, in their 20s or younger, like myself.
Some were screaming, some were crying, some were silent. These were the best actors.
We hadn’t been shot yet. In fact, we were waiting for our gunman to arrive. I was an active participant in a collaborative training drill between Greenville Health System (GHS) and USCSOMG. Happening bi-yearly, this day-long simulation gives EMT trainees the chance to practice life-saving skills in a trauma environment.
About 175 volunteers are put in movie-set ready moulage (think Walking Dead makeup) and are turned into actors for scenarios such as multi-car pile-ups and active shooter situations. From the gunshots, police raid, smoke bomb, ambulance ride and hospital care – it’s as close to trauma as possible.
I often think about what I would do if a mass shooting happened where I live and work or how I would act if I was in one. I think it’s only natural during the epidemic of gun violence we live in today. But, because I willingly signed up for this situation, I didn’t think the situation would be as jarring as it was. It was scary.
When the shooting simulation started, the sound was deafening – probably five seconds at a time of semi-automatic rounds. The room filled with smoke, so thick it was hard to see. It was a very long five minutes before the police busted in with tactical weapons, asking if we saw the shooter.
I was very relieved when a slew of polo-wearing EMT trainees came running in to take us to “safety,” which was triage on an outside lawn. Because I has a bullet wound to the head, I was labeled as urgent and placed on a red tarp with about half a dozen other victims.
Students began giving care in the form of gauze and tourniquets before the ambulances came. Because of the extreme number of victims, they started being loaded into pick-up trucks. Some of the volunteer victims were coached to scream at the students, to try to get up to find friends inside, or to act as if they died.
It was loud, chaotic, and stressful. For me, and for, I assume, the students.
“This gives them the chance to get the patients’ perspective. How could you not remember a situation like this?,” my moulage artist Dana Mizel asked, as she applied an inch-long bullet hole on my forehead.
USCSOMG students are part of an EMT program, where they serve on an ambulance shift once a month for a semester in order to practice their in-class medical training in real emergencies.
When the training is over, the volunteers, like myself, washed (or peeled) off their makeup. But for millions of victims in the United States every year, gun violence isn’t a pretend scenario.
But for the medical students, whether they plan to go into trauma care or not, they are only starting their journey towards being on the front lines of providing care in times of need.
When they are licensed medical professionals, they will not only have the medical knowledge for patient care but they will also have the interpersonal skills for trauma victims, which are met not only during horrific events such as mass shootings, but during daily EMT shifts and hospital rounds.
This is something that is unique to USCSOMG. The partnership with GHS puts even first-year students right in the fold of simulated situations with these yearly training drills and with their Standardized Patients program, where paid actors help train students in a variety of medical situations such as a combative or depressed patients.
“EMT training provides students with basic clinical skills but also teaches them how to work as part of a healthcare team and how to communicate in tense situations,” said Thomas Blackwell, MD, assistant dean and director of the EMT Training Program. “Particularly now – when workplace and school violence is skyrocketing – we’ve an obligation to train our students and help strengthen our first-responder networks.”
Much of being a doctor is so much more than understanding ailments and providing care. It’s also about the intense and intricate interpersonal relationships that have to be forged in the midst of medicine – during extreme emergencies and the juxtaposed mundane checkups.
After the simulation, it took a full day to not hear silences loudly due to a slight ringing in my ears from gunshots and for my hands to no longer be red-stained from fake blood. I was solemn after, hyper-aware I chose to be in a fake mass shooting and just this year, thousands of innocent lives were lost due to similar, but real, mass shootings.
I also have been reflecting on the sacrifices doctors, nurses, and EMTs make – emotionally, physically and personally – to help victims during their very, very worst days.
Volunteering for a simulation or being a Standardized Patient is a unique way to be involved in training of the next generation of local medical professionals. To get involved yourself, you can sign up to be a volunteer for future simulations or for the standardized patient program at http://greenvillemed.sc.edu/SimCenter.shtml.
Mary Willson is a multimedia producer for GVLtoday. Sign up at GVLtoday.com.