Yesterday I glimpsed heroism — and preparedness

In one single video, you can see senseless horror and sublime heroism.

I have lived in Boston my entire life and the terrorist bombing at the finish line of the Marathon stuck me particularly hard. I wasn’t there, nor was anyone I know personally, but that was merely chance. Just about everyone I know has been among the supporters lining the route in one year or another, so it was particularly harrowing to see video of the bombing.

But in the same video, I glimpsed something else: heroism.

It takes extraordinary heroism and bravery to run TOWARD the site of the bombing when everyone else is running away in fear. Yet, dozens, if not hundreds, of police, medical personnel and ordinary citizens did precisely that without even the slightest hesitation. The professionals, and perhaps some of the ordinary individuals, recognized that where one bomb has detonated, another might soon explode. Nonetheless, they ran to help, ripping down fencing and barriers in their eagerness to reach the victims.

In addition to their bravery and selflessness, their extraordinarily heroic response owes a great deal to something else: preparedness. Every single one of the professional first responders have drilled for just this eventuality. That training was reflected in the way that they immediately took control of the situation, summoned an army of medical personnel, a fleet of ambulances, and a battalion of police and SWAT teams.

What is truly remarkable in the chaos of the immediate aftermath is that there wasn’t much chaos. In only moments, victims who could be moved were ferried to further medical assistance and those who couldn’t be moved were treated on the spot. Ambulances pulled up and raced away in an orderly fashion. Hospitals called in their trauma teams; operating rooms were thrown open and surgeries were started. Race officials stopped the race in an orderly fashion and began ferrying runners away from the site. Political officials opened help lines to reunite people with loved ones and to solicit tips in solving the crime. Some early responders had the presence of mind to immediately begin testing air quality to be sure that no radioactivity or biologic agents had been released in the bombing.

It was a tribute to heroism and to training.

What were the chances that there would be a bombing at the finish line of the Boston Marathon? Very, very low, yet thousands of people had trained for thousands of hours for an event that was extremely unlikely to happen, just in case it did. Why? Because in emergencies, minutes count. They make the difference between saving a life and watching someone bleed to death on the ground.

Imagine if instead race officials had trusted that a rare event would never happen. Imagine if race officials had made no plans beyond calling 911 in the event of a disaster and summoning medical help then. Imagine if police and EMTs had not been trained in responding to rare crises. It’s not difficult to imagine that the carnage would have been far worse.

Up until the moment the crisis occurred, everyone on the scene was concentrating on creating the best possible experience for the runners, the family and friends, and the ordinary spectators. But they pivoted on a dime into crisis mode and because they did, even greater carnage was averted.

There’s a lesson here for anyone who purports to care for other people: It’s not enough to create a great experience when everything goes right. It’s not enough to call 911 when things go wrong. It’s not acceptable to pretend that there’s no point in preparing for rare disasters or that the people who do prepare and train relentless for these rare disasters are fear mongering.

Lives were lost yesterday in Boston, but lives were also saved because of the heroism of individuals … and because they were prepared.

  • Lorrie

    Despite everything, I really believe that people are really good at heart-Anne Frank

  • Sue

    A great illustration of preparedness based on risk assessment, team work and advance preparation – all the antitheses of the radical HB movement.

  • Laural

    Well said, Dr. Amy.

    My husband, a veteran of two tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan, would agree completely with your assessment. Training matters, preparedness
    matters, even for remote eventualities- no, especially for remote
    eventualities, because that is when it can mean life or death.

  • FormerPhysicist

    A great article esssentially talking about the same thing – preparedness in the hospital.
    http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2013/04/why-bostons-hospitals-were-ready.html

  • Lost in Suburbia

    Been thinking about you and your family and friends in Boston. I’m glad to hear you are all safe.

  • Cellist

    Wonderful post Dr Amy.
    Best wishes, thoughts and prayers from Melbourne Australia (one of Bostons sister cities)

  • Aunti Po Dean

    A couple more things to try to imagine…
    Imagine if organizers had thought, the hospital is only 10 minutes away. imagine if the ambulance just dumped victims of this bombing at the door

  • Kalacirya

    It makes me sick to think that someone put those explosives there with the express intention of maiming as many people as possible.

    I truly hope that the one young man in the particularly graphic iconic photo makes it through this, his face has really stuck with me. I won’t be able to forget those photos.

    I hope we in the Northeast get a break from this. First Sandy, then Newtown, and now this, in under a year.

  • Aunti Po Dean

    well said Dr Amy

  • LibrarianSarah

    Don’t cry don’t cry don’t cry…

  • Renee Martin

    These professionals train, and drill, for unlikely events so that the rest of us can relax and have a good time, secure that these things are being taken care of.

    Thank you to all the first responser a, and others who care for others, for doing the work that makes everyday life nice.

    • Sullivan ThePoop

      You know there are people who think the training and drills prove the government is behind every bad event ever. Makes me sick.

  • I’m sorry about the bombing yesterday.My condolences with the victims

  • Annie

    Apparently once people realized what happened, numbers of them rushed to the nearest hospital to donate blood. It’s amazing what our knee-jerk reaction is in such times.

  • Salient and succinct.

  • guest

    What happened yesterday was horrific. Thank goodness for all the people who stepped up to help, whether it was their jobs requiring them to do it or not. It is always beautiful to see people helping others.

  • ArmyChick

    Thanks for this. I am also a Boston native (now a NH resident) and yesterday my fello Bostonians made me proud. I know that if I had been there I would have done my best to help and put some of my Army training to good use.

    • BeatlesFan

      I’m in NH too- where do you live? Just asking out of curiosity, you don’t need to answer if you don’t want to 🙂 Also, thank you for your service.

      • ArmyChick

        Thanks! I live just north of Concord and you?

        • BeatlesFan

          Wakefield, also known as Nowheresville or Out Where the Buses Don’t Run 🙂

      • mamaellie

        I miss NH. I only lived there for a couple of years, but I’d go back if I could. Now in TX.

  • Thank you for eloquently summing up our admiration for those first responders that put their life on the line for those in need. We stand in awe of their selfless bravery, but also at how their dedicated training is done for the sole purpose of being prepared for the unthinkable.

    I also appreciate the high degree of sensitively that you have managed in writing this piece. You have tastefully managed to compare this tragedy with the need for responsibility in bringing babies safely earth-side. One may desperately hope that they would not need to use Plan B, C or D…but when Plan A is suddenly out the window, you owe it to your child to have properly planned for that eventuality.

  • AL

    It was amazing listening to 2 nurses on CNN who had worked in Iraq but hadn’t been battlefield medics in a while, how all the training on the battlefield came back to them. So ridiculously sad, but amazed at how prepared and well trained so many of these people present were to help save so many more lives that could’ve easily been lost. My heart goes out to all of you in Boston. I’m a runner, and this is the creme de la creme of races that we all talk about qualifying for. Such a sad sad day. Heartbreak hill will have a totally different meaning now.

  • YES. This was great. And even got me a little emotional.

  • NPR did a piece this morning and when the call came in to the hospital, they asked the director “Is this a drill?”. Because they’d done drills and drills, but hadn’t seen a real emergency yet.

    Thanks to those “crazy drills”, they knew exactly how they were going to respond. Confusion and indecision lead to delays, and delays can cost lives.

    • EmbraceYourInnerCrone

      When I was in the Navy we drilled all the time, for many things: man
      overboard drills, Abandon ship drills, fire fighting drills (nothing
      like a fire when you are floating in the middle of the ocean), chemical/biological warfare drills, mass casualty drills,
      damage control drills. When the ship behind us was in a collision with
      a merchant ship and suffered a 80ft gash in her side, the thing that
      saved the ship was that everyone knew what to do and where to go, its muscle memory in some ways. Panic and milling about kills people in those situations. You hope for the best but you prepare for the worst.

      I live in shoreline Connecticut, we make preps for hurricanes and floods at my house, so when Sandy hit and we had no power for over a week, we had the food, firewood,propane, firstaid kid, etc that we needed, but we also had the insurance papers and the gobag by the front door in case we had to leave due to flooding. If you “trust nature” not to kill you, you may get an unpleasant surprise, but I did know people who “knew” their houses would be OK……

      • Aunti Po Dean

        Yes in fact in some emergencies the drill is to say ” this is not a drill” not that it matters much because as you say the drill takes over and you just do what you have been drilled to do.

      • moto_librarian

        My husband was a submariner in the Navy, and he has told me that he still remembers many of the things that they repeatedly drilled on.Minutes and seconds count when you’re on the water (or under it),