NEWBURYPORT — Roughly two minutes after the second of two bombs exploded near the finish line of Monday’s Boston Marathon, cardiac surgery physician assistants Dixie Patterson and Courtney Luck, along with Dr. Jennifer Finch, bolted out of the race’s medical tent and began sprinting to the blast site.
The three Newburyport residents and friends could tell by the tremendous tent-rattling thuds that something very wrong had just happened yards away.
For much of the race, their time spent inside the tent was rather routine. Early in the morning, Patterson and Luck, who works at Anna Jaques Hospital in Newburyport, posed for a series of iPhone photos. A crisp spring day meant the number of runners suffering from dehydration, cramps and other marathon-related ailments remained low.
But when the call came for all medical personnel to grab what supplies they could and run to the finish line, they — and everyone else in the tent — ignored the fact that they were dashing into what could be a very dangerous situation. Awaiting the three Newburyport volunteers was pure carnage — something usually only seen by combat troops. It was a scene so bloody and traumatic that it tested the mettle of the most seasoned health care provider.
“Anyone there, no matter how long you’ve done this, this was like a battlefield. At first you can’t believe what you’re seeing, you think it’s a movie,” said Patterson, who works at the North Shore Medical Center in Salem.
Joining EMTs and other emergency personnel, the trio began frantically working, using whatever means they could to stop blood from gushing out of what they said were mostly lower extremity injuries. Runners, kneeling in blood and glass, took off their shirts and handed them to emergency workers. Belts were furiously removed from waists and used as a tourniquets.
“It was horrible. It was the most horrific trauma I had seen,” said Finch, a cardiac doctor at Lahey Clinic in Burlington.
It took about 15 minutes to tend to the wounded and transfer them into the medical tent. The lack of distressed runners meant that most of the cots inside the tent were empty, which shaved off precious seconds in tending to the injured. In the tent, emergency responders prioritized the victims according to the severity of their wounds and got them placed inside a fleet of ambulances for transport to one of many Boston hospitals.
Three people, including an 8-year-old Dorchester boy and a 29-year-old restaurant manager from Medford, died. More than 170 people were injured, many of whom lost limbs.
“I absolutely knew we saved lives. You look at it on TV and wonder how more people didn’t die,” Patterson said.
Finch agreed, saying that the the meticulous, detailed planning for the event by the Boston Athletic Association, including the location of the medical tents, along with the number of highly trained emergency medical workers, made a tremendous impact in keeping the death toll so low.
It is estimated that more than 8,500 volunteers and 1,000 medical personnel were working that day.
“As a person in the medical community I think that what I can say is the city of Boston is unfortunately prepared for this kind of thing,” Finch said. “In the face of such tragedy it’s reassuring that the human race, the human spirit came together when something like this happened.”
“It just makes you feel good and proud to be part of that,” Patterson added.
A day after the bombings, Patterson and Finch said they went to work in an attempt to resume some sense of normalcy — focus on the tasks at hand.
“Because I didn’t know what else to do,” Finch said.
But both admitted they had not fully absorbed what they did and what had happened, and that a moment could come where it may hit them like a ton of bricks. Still, both women are planning on returning to the Boston Marathon next April, whether as a volunteer or in Patterson’s case: as a marathoner.
“New Englanders are tough, we’ll bounce back and make next year even stronger,” Patterson said.