For centuries, medical professionals have learned lessons from the casualties of war. In the wake of the horrendous shooting spree that left 58 people dead and sent nearly 500 to hospitals in Las Vegas last Sunday, the medical community – and ordinary citizens as well – should learn lessons about how to respond when an American city is turned into a war zone.
Learning these lessons is critically important to save lives, because the sad truth is that it is just a matter of time before guns, bombs, cars, trucks, planes or something else is used by mentally disturbed people or terrorists to attack innocent people again somewhere in our country.
When people are seriously injured, a rapid response can be the difference between life and death. But we can’t always count on trained medical professionals to be nearby when we need them.
Here are some ideas that can help us all deal with the possibility of violence or another medical emergency suddenly engulfing us:
First, as terrible as the attack in Las Vegas was, we shouldn’t panic. We can be sure that some people will be in the wrong place at the wrong time and fall victim to a violent attack, but the overwhelming majority of us never will. So while we need to be better prepared for an attack, we must not be paralyzed by fear. That in itself is harmful to our health. We can’t spend our lives locked behind closed doors and afraid to go to concerts, sporting events or other large gatherings.
Second, as many of us as possible should get some basic first-aid training. Learn how to administer CPR. How to tie a tourniquet to stop bleeding from a wound. What you can do if someone is burned. How to immobilize a broken arm or leg. You don’t have to be a doctor or nurse to learn the basics of dealing with a medical emergency until the person you are helping can get treatment from a medical professional. Schools should provide this training to children and community groups should make it available to adults.
As a practicing physician I taught my children at home how to administer CPR, how to apply a proper tourniquet and how to deal with penetrating injuries. I remember some of my friends telling me: “Manny, if you want your kids to be doctors that’s fine, otherwise, you’ll be traumatizing them!” No, I don’t necessarily want my kids to be doctors, but rather be involved in our society. We all need to be part of the solution.
Third, know your blood type and have a card in your wallet listing it. Should you ever need a transfusion in an emergency, this information will be important for those treating you.
Fourth, donate blood to a blood bank. Having a plentiful blood supply on hand in an emergency can help medical professional save lives. The American Red Cross website makes it easy to find a blood drive near you by typing in your ZIP code.
In addition to these steps that everyone can take, emergency medical responders should learn lessons from what went right and what might have gone better following the Las Vegas attack and other mass casualty incidents, such as natural disasters. Studies of the emergency response should be shared widely in the medical community and among government officials.
Lessons learned by providing medical treatment in wars over the past 100 years have improved health care for everyone. New lessons learned in domestic attacks can do the same.
For example, the horror of World War I accelerated the learning and technical proliferation of surgery in the field of wound management. We began to learn about what unsanitary conditions could do not only in the battlefield, but in the cities to where the wounded would be transported.
In addition, the development of wound drainage techniques and surface wound antiseptics became the standards in many military hospitals in World War I, minimizing complications from infection. Civilian hospitals then made these improvements.
World War I also brought us the first concept of a blood bank and how the utilization of blood products would potentially save lives. Specific typing of blood became available and preservation of blood products was discovered in order to maintain the freshness of blood.
Surgeons and scientists during World War I became aware of the treatment of shock. Many scientists began to publish in the field of physiology, which led to discoveries for the treatment of hypothermia, fluid resuscitation and oxygen delivery.
World War II gave us the analysis of medical triaging and how important survival is from the time of injury to treatment. This discovery is the hallmark of trauma victim treatment to this day.
In addition, during WWII surgical techniques were improved and subspecialties in surgical training became the norm. The war taught us about the importance of medical teams of nurses, technicians, anesthesiologists and surgeons. More antibiotics were developed beyond penicillin. The treatment of trauma became more sophisticated.
From the end of the Korean War through the Vietnam War and up until 2006, Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units were set up in a matter of hours, providing medical treatment near the front lines to wounded soldiers. A book, film and hit TV show made millions of Americans aware of the MASH units.
The Vietnam War gave us not only more sophistication in vascular surgery but also the framework of what it is today to have a trauma center. And helicopters played a key role in quickly evacuating the wounded to medical treatment. Now helicopters are used for the same purpose in this country.
In the long run, I know things will get better. Things will change. Because Good will prevail against Evil. In the meantime, we are in the middle of a war between Good and Evil and we need to minimize the casualties of war.