Mia Sharp Bransford, R.N., EMT, works as a nurse at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt, helping injured and sick children in the Emergency Department. Usually, her work and dedication to treat children and patients is performed in the hospital. But the soft-spoken, friendly nurse unselfishly rose to the challenge while on vacation to render aid to injured people just minutes after a mass shooting at an Aurora, Colo., movie theater left 12 dead and 58 injured. She recounts the tragic night that would change her life forever.
I’ve been a nurse in the Pediatric Emergency Department at Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt for five years. I was also previously an EMT, and worked in the Trauma Intensive Care Unit for eight months. I’m used to working in an environment we describe as “organized chaos.” But I don’t know if anything in my training could have fully prepared me for what I experienced the night of July 20, 2012, in Aurora, Colo. My life will never be the same.
My sister, Marisa, and I planned to see the latest Batman movie, “The Dark Knight,” while we were in Denver for a family reunion and decided to attend the opening night show on Thursday, July 20. We located a theater close to our hotel, and bought tickets to the last available show time, 12:10 a.m.
About 15 minutes into the movie a strobe light started flashing behind me, and an alarm was ringing. It took a few seconds to realize that the fire alarm was going off while an automated message told us to leave through the emergency exit. At first I thought it was a part of the movie. It didn’t seem like a real emergency. The movie was still playing. The lights were down. Slowly, people started to walk out the emergency exit.
Marisa and I stayed in our seats, because I still didn’t believe it was an emergency. I thought that someone pulled the alarm on purpose to be obnoxious, and I didn’t want to get up and lose my seat for a false alarm. As the theater emptied, I looked around and saw that about 10 other people had stayed in their seats as well. All of the sudden police officers burst into the room with weapons drawn. I could see emergency lights flashing outside. We got up at that point and joined the moviegoers that had already exited. When we walked out, we were at the front of building. A line of police cars had formed a perimeter around the parking lot and surrounding streets. I looked around and saw people walking around trying to figure out what was going on.
The first injured person I saw was a young man leaning against a police car with blood coming from his face. I also saw another young man sitting against the building with blood on his clothes, and yet another sitting on the curb with what looked like a stab wound on his back. Initially, I thought they were involved in some kind of fight that got out of control and that someone pulled the fire alarm and called police. Their injuries appeared to be minor and non-emergent. They were alert, sitting up and talking, and the bleeding from their injuries was well controlled.
Soon I started to hear people talk about a shooter. Even the police were talking about it, but it still didn’t sink in or make any sense. Why would a shooter be at the movie theater? Then I saw a police officer help a couple of people carry a wounded person to the back of the building. Without hesitation, I followed them, stating I was an ER nurse and could help render aid. I immediately went into “nurse mode.” Looking back, I think I reacted this way because I couldn’t wrap my mind around being at a scene of a shooting, but I could recognize sick and injured and that there were limited first responders on scene that could render aid.
Because the shooter had not been apprehended yet, other officers were providing cover protection as this wounded person was being carried. Once the victim was laid on the ground, I again repeated my offer, and saw that a firefighter was already trying to treat other victims nearby. He told me I could help by talking to patients and count their pulses and respirations, vital signs you can take without equipment, because his supplies were limited. He kept saying that there were multiple groups of injured people, which was still hard for me to fathom in the innocent setting of a movie theater.
When a child comes into the Pediatric Emergency Department, we work as a team. An important facet of ED nursing is triage, or sorting, patients based on the severity of their injuries/illness.
I have also participated in disaster drills and taken emergency preparedness courses at work. However, those drills focused on how to manage the influx of multiple victims once they arrive at the ED. Appropriate triaging really comes into play whenever a large influx of patients arrive or are expected.
The first victim I interacted with in Aurora was bleeding from a head wound and also had wrist pain. I gave her some tissues from my purse to help wipe blood off of her head and face. It appeared her injuries would not require extensive treatment or resources. I didn’t interact with her for very long because she was alert and stable so I moved onto another victim. My sister talked with her and helped her get in contact with family.
The next victim I saw was a man who had been shot in the leg and was lying on the sidewalk. His wife was next to him, uninjured, trying to keep him calm. His leg wound was severe, still bleeding, and the firefighter stated he was the most critical patient. Seeing how badly his leg was injured gave me an unsettling feeling. At that point I realized that the gunman must have had some large artillery to cause this kind of injury and harm so many people. The victim needed an I.V. and fluids to replace the blood he had lost and was still losing. He also could have benefited from pain medicine and a more effective and clean pressure dressing than a T-shirt that I used to apply pressure to his leg. A tourniquet could have even been helpful to slow the bleeding. He was in need of an ED and operating room. He was in a lot of pain. I felt bad that I had nothing more to help provide relief. Another bystander helped distract him and offered his cell phone so that he could call his family.
A few minutes later, police officers loaded stable victims in their vehicles to transport them to the hospital. The first victim I interacted with was included in that group. It happened very quickly because I don’t believe the shooter had been arrested yet and they didn’t want to risk any additional injury. Then some more first responders came to help evacuate the victim I was helping. It was kind of like a scene from a movie. They quickly assessed to make sure he didn’t have any other wounds, dressed his leg with gauze, loaded him on a scoop stretcher and carried him to an ambulance.
Realization of what I had been through and how close to danger I was did not sink in until after I got back to my hotel and started watching news coverage of the event. The area where I was treating victims was yards from where the shooter was apprehended. What if the shooter had resisted arrest and opened fire on the police? Would I have been caught in crossfire and injured? What if I had purchased our tickets earlier in the week instead of that day? Would we have been in that particular theater or one of the victims?
I still haven’t seen “The Dark Knight,” nor have I returned to the movies. And I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to go back. Sometimes little things can trigger feelings from that night that I thought were over. I’m not sure why I was there that night and was able to walk away virtually unscathed. My life will never be the same and this is an experience I will never forget. I hope I was able to do something good for the victims I treated. I’m very thankful that my sister and I were not injured that night. My heart goes out to those who lost loved ones and who were injured in the theater shooting.
—written by Mia Sharp Bransford with intro by Christina Echegaray