Doctors and nurses who treated Aurora theater shooting victims at UCH reflect on their work

22 patients arrived alive, 22 patients survived

AURORA, Colo. - Seven months after the Aurora Theater shooting, the doctors and nurses who worked tirelessly through the night to keep the victims alive are only now starting to reflect on their own heroism.

They won't call it heroics, but on July 20, University of Colorado Hospital in Aurora sent out an emergency page to more than 140 additional doctors and nurses. Some of them jumped out of bed and were at the hospital in less than 15 minutes, an immediate response that saved dozens of lives.

"One of the docs was like, 'Get back in there, I don't know what's going on,'" said nurse Daryl Johnson as he reflected on that night.

"My pager stated mass shooting," said nurse manager April Koehler. "That's all it said on there."

"That was my, 'Oh my God' moment," said Dr. Barbara Blok, attending physician at UCH.

"I came in and I saw patients all over the hallways and beds," said Koehler. "There was blood everywhere. I saw staff that were covered in blood because they were pulling patients out."

--All of these interviews can be seen during 7NEWS at 10 p.m. Wednesday--

In those moments of uncertainty, the best in humanity was clearly apparent.

"Once people started arriving, you didn't have time to reflect. You just had time to act," said Johnson.

"Everybody was professional. Everybody worked great together," said Blok.

"We actually got to make it a little bit better," said Dr. Avery MacKenzie, a first-year resident.

To be clear, it was chaotic. Police officers, acting quickly, rushed victims to hospitals not by ambulance, but in their patrol units.

"These patients, they're not cleaned up. There's no IV's, there's nothing started on them," said Koehler.

"Went from life support, to tube in someone's chest, to holding someone's intestines," said Johnson.

"I called the command center and I said, 'I need some nurses down here right now,'" said Robert Leeret, director of emergency trauma and capacity at UCH.

"I mean this is an unspeakably horrible thing," said MacKenzie.

Yet despite the chaos, it was under control. Victims were in good hands.

"There was one little girl who I will always remember.  Both her parents had been shot," said Koehler. "The little girl was crying for her mom and I just went up to her and said, 'I'm a mom. If you want to come to me, I'll hold you.' And she completely came to me and wrapped her little arms around me."

Both parents survived.

"I hugged the mom and I said to her, 'I'm so happy that your family is ok,'" said Koehler.

"And them being ok, I think, it's really good to replace the memory in my mind of somebody with multiple gunshot wounds to their heads, with what I saw two weeks later," said MacKenzie. "Which was people smiling and eating Starbursts and walking around the floor and getting ready to go home. Like, that's pretty cool." 

What happened that night certainly took its toll.

"I have some pretty tough days, unfortunately," said Johnson.

"It's definitely the hardest thing I've had to go through in my entire life," said Koehler.

"I probably have already worked the hardest shift of my entire career," said MacKenzie.

Yet long after the physical exhaustion has passed, the emotional wounds remain fresh.

"It was really hard. And it affected our staff," said Blok. "You don't forget it, unfortunately."

"Newtown, Connecticut was difficult," said Leeret. "It kind of flashes you right back to it."

Twenty-two gun-shot victims came through the doors of UCH that night. Doctors and nurses didn't lose a single one of them.

"Extremely proud," said Koehler. "Beyond words. Beyond words."

In that moment of uncertainty, the doctors and nurses stepped up.

"I love working at University," said Blok. "And to see a hospital pull together the way it did that night was phenomenal."

"I feel really good about the decision I made to go into emergency medicine," said MacKenzie. "And I would make it again in a second."

UCH is providing ongoing counseling to doctors, nurses and staff who were on the front lines that night.

A partial list of the support staff that responded included 11 additional surgeons called in, 12 residents, 25 nurses and 8 blood bank workers.

Many of these health care professionals will be honored by the American Red Cross with the Healthcare Hero award at the Breakfast of Champions on Fri., March 8.

Of the patients who arrived at UCH that night, one was DOA, dead on arrival. All others who came in with a heartbeat, left with a heartbeat - as they like to say at UCH.

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