Pittsburgh trauma surgeon: ‘Stop the Bleed’ training saved lives after shooting, but stopping the need must be next

I am a trauma surgeon who cared for many of the critically wounded victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. As we raced to find the source of blood loss in one of the most severely injured patients, one of my trauma surgeon partners, a U.S. Army veteran of multiple tours, joined me in the operating room to assist.

His first comment upon seeing the injuries that we were managing struck me. He said he last saw such destruction from military weaponry when he was serving in Afghanistan.

Two doors down, a second badly injured patient arrived to the operating room with extensive injuries to multiple extremities from a burst of gunfire.

Although the patient’s blood pressure was perilously low, the bleeding had been stopped prior to surgery by tourniquets applied to the limbs. Additional victims arrived, again with potentially life- and limb-threatening injuries rendered by an assault rifle, but all had received lifesaving care even prior to arrival at the hospital.

Some of this is due to an approach called tactical emergency care, where specially trained teams of physicians and emergency medical service practitioners respond and provide care along with law enforcement. A brave team of providers entered Tree of Life under active fire, along with the SWAT team. The early identification of injured victims allowed for rapid transport from the scene to our trauma center, providing the opportunity to save lives that would have otherwise been lost.

While all of the patients who arrived at our trauma centers in Pittsburgh are alive today, the sense of accomplishment and pride associated with this is blunted and seemingly selfish in the face of the carnage that occurred. No one will say “it could have been worse,” because the magnitude of this massacre that impacted the world and my hometown of Pittsburgh is incomprehensible.

Nonetheless, many of the surviving victims who will live to amplify and strengthen the message of unity that emerged in the days that followed are alive because of the evolution of a system of pre-hospital care that has necessarily changed the way the lay public, law enforcement and emergency medical care respond to intentional mass injury events.

Stop the Bleed

Police and other first responders outside Tree of Life synagogue, Oct. 27, 2018. Gene K. Puskar/AP Photo
In the wake of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the “Stop the Bleed” program emerged as a way to empower the public to act as immediate responders. Dr. Lenworth Jacobs, a trauma surgeon at the Hartford Hospital, recognized that the skills and tools to stop bleeding could not help when confined to a hospital setting during a mass casualty or intentional mass injury event.

That’s because a person can bleed to death in as little as five minutes, and thus time is critical in bleeding control.

Jacobs led the effort to create Stop the Bleed, a program to enhance survivability after such events. It is an initiative of the American College of Surgeons and the Hartford Consensus, and it seeks to promote the message that anyone can save a life.

Supported by the White House, Stop the Bleed originated in October 2015 with the goal of making education on bleeding control as common as CPR training.

Stop the Bleed teaches basic bleeding control techniques and provides tools, such as wound packing and tourniquets, to the general public should they need to respond to life-threatening bleeding.

Pittsburgh had prepared for such an event

Having faced intentional mass injury events in the Pittsburgh region, both in schools and our own hospital system, our team of trauma surgeons immediately began to push this public health initiative.

Through generous philanthropic support by the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and a partnership with the Copeland Regional Trauma Council, we embarked upon the ambitious task of teaching Stop the Bleed throughout the region, with a goal of providing a tourniquet to every law enforcement officer and a bleeding control kit in every public school building.

We recognized that teachers and law enforcement are frequently the immediate responders to horrific events such as shootings, and we sought to empower those people with the tools and techniques to save a life. The program has grown rapidly in our region, with over 37,000 people trained, over 500 bleeding control kits distributed, and over 9,000 tourniquets provided to law enforcement officers, including the Pittsburgh Bureau of Police and the Pennsylvania State Police.

My trauma colleagues and I estimate that tourniquets applied by police officers and emergency medical services at the scene of the massacre at Tree of Life saved the lives of at least three victims.

Synagogue members in Squirrel Hill asked for training

Early in our regional initiative, the Jewish Healthcare Foundation recognized the critical importance of Stop the Bleed.