JONESBORO -- When the alarm sounded at 12:45 p.m. on March 24, 1998, at St. Bernards hospital, Brenda Million assumed it was just another disaster exercise.
Seconds later, though, the 911 messaging system announced that someone had opened fire on students and teachers at Westside Middle School. They warned that the situation was not a drill.
Medical personnel quickly migrated to the emergency room from all areas of the hospital, and within minutes the department was filled with nearly 75 doctors.
Normally, only two doctors staff the department.
"As the victims came in, they already had a team of health care workers waiting for them," said Million, a nurse who is now the vice president of Women's and Children's Services, Dialysis and Perioperative Services for the hospital.
Children and teachers had been shot in their heads, chests and stomachs. Bullet wounds ranged from shattered bones to severed arteries and ruptured colons.
Several were injured by falling or straining as they fled.
By the end of the day, five were dead: teacher Shannon Wright, 32; and students Natalie Brooks, 11; Paige Herring, 12; Stephanie Johnson, 12; and Britthney Varner, 11. Ten others were wounded.
A room in the hospital's Stroud Hall Building was set up as command central for families of the injured. Two sheets of butcher paper were tacked to the walls, and the hospital staff listed the names and statuses of the wounded.
Written next to the names of two students who had died were the words: "family at home."
Some of the relatives of the victims and of the shooters worked at the hospital.
"It was chaotic, but it was very organized chaos," Million said. "Everybody had a role, and everybody did their role."
In the 20 years since that day, St. Bernards has been called upon to be the voice of experience at conferences and events around the nation. The hospital's staff connects with others around the nation who have gone through one of the many school shootings since the Westside one. They compare lessons learned.
Emergency drills at St. Bernards are constant.
The nurses in the Emergency Department are required to have up-to-date trauma training. The hospital partners with the Arkansas State University's Regional Center for Disaster Preparedness Education program to teach basic and advanced disaster life-support training to all hospital staff members.
The state Department of Health and the Arkansas Hospital Association regularly train the hospital employees on fatality management.
"We are ready, and we are prepared if something like that should happen again in northeast Arkansas," said Karla Davis, St. Bernards' regional leader for Northeast Arkansas Healthcare Coalition.
Emergency room Director Carmen Smith, a nurse, said she has seen people around her become more passionate and proactive about training and being prepared.
"Tragic events of that magnitude do cause permanent changes," Smith said.
SundayMonday on 03/18/2018
Print Headline: Hospital ready then, even more prepared today