Code Black at the Brigham

by Gerrick Gu, Williams College ‘17

As an undergraduate intern, I spent the month of January, 2015, in Boston, shadowing cardiac surgeons at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Through long days I had the opportunity to observe complicated procedures performed by some of the most famous heart surgeons in the world. One of them was Dr. Michael Davidson,, a titan in the field of aortic aneurysm surgery.

Although repairing large blood vessels involves a team approach, only one fearless cardiac specialist does the actual fixing. On a good day with no complications this surgical process can take up to 14 or 15 hours. Dr. Davidson was the acknowledged expert, shouldering new cases daily with his team. His skills were in high demand. I watched his surgeries several times. Nearly all of them required precise placement of over 100 sutures in under 20 minutes at a time when the heart was completely shut down with the patient kept alive by a heart-lung machine. The toll this lifestyle was taking on Dr. Davidson was apparent. At 44 years of age his hair had grayed, his gentle face already creased with wrinkles.

On Monday, January 20, as I watched a routine coronary arterial bypass graft (CABG) surgery in Dr. Wu’s OR, a small light suddenly flashed at the nurse’s station. The attending nurse immediately left the OR. Shortly, she rushed back in, pulled Dr. Wu away from the sterile field and whispered something in his ear. At first he looked puzzled, then concern gave way to shock. He muttered something inaudible under his breath, pulled off of his gown and instructed the surgical resident to finish up. She was taken aback, as was I. Such procedure was highly irregular.

I dashed out into the hallway to find a small group of young physicians anxiously discussing “the lockdown.” They told me that the hospital was in Code Black (the worst of codes). Alarmed, I wondered what could have happened. Then Dr. Bolman strode in and made an announcement: “Attention everyone. Please continue operating. There is an active shooter in the building, but the doors have been barricaded. If you are free, you may wish to briefly contact your loved ones.” With that he retreated into his OR, leaving the rest of us stunned. One of my fellow observers began to weep, and everyone pulled out their cellphones. I called my parents and mentally prepared myself to bolt if needed. Thankfully, I didn’t have to. The SWAT team telephoned to give us the “all clear.”

Just when I started to feel safe again, a random group of bystanders and nurses rushed in bearing a heavily-bloodied body on a makeshift stretcher, shouting to clear the way. They pushed into the first OR, where chaos immediately ensued. Everyone not needed for surgery crowded the hallways. Coolers containing plasma and donor blood appeared everywhere.

From hushed whispers I found out that the patient had been shot in the chest and through the liver. I consoled myself by thinking that the best place for the victim was right there at Brigham and Women’s.

About 30 of us had gathered outside the OR; we could only imagine the crazy nature of what was happening inside. I didn’t know what to do — depart for home, trusting that the shooter had been brought down; or stand idly by, lost in limbo. In the end I eased open the OR door to witness an unmanageable frenzy of activity. In a room designed to comfortably house perhaps a dozen people, there was nearly 3 times that number. Surgeons shouted at each other, barking out vital signs that dipped between life and death.

Suddenly I saw the victim’s pale, lost face, caked red with fresh blood from his own wounds. It was Dr. Davidson.

Eight pairs of hands worked to repair arteries, to quell the massive bleeding. Nearly breathless, I stood there several minutes before an attending nurse sternly informed me that it was not my place to be there. I pulled off my scrubs, washed my hands and left.

The hospital was swarming with law officers. I walked straight to Chipotle, where I sat for the next 6 hours pondering the events of the day, thinking about how I had just been with Dr. Davidson the day before. That day during clinic hours I met one of his young daughters. She had tagged along with her father after school, not knowing that that day was fated to be his last.

Dr. Davidson died that night. The doctors decided there wasn’t anything more they could do for him. I received an email telling me that I was not to come in anymore, and that was the end of my internship.

I didn’t know Dr. Davidson well, but I sensed that he was a brilliant and compassionate human being. He was survived by his wife and three children (now four, as she was pregnant at the time). I never saw the room upstairs — just a few steps from the entrance to the OR stairwell — where the gunman shot himself. I later learned that he had been angry with the doctor for failing to keep his 80-year-old mother alive. She had died from complications shortly after her third valve replacement surgery. The killer was unable to pay her medical bills and decided that the only answer was violence.

As for me, I try not to think about the whole episode. I just feel badly for his surgeon friends, who, despite heroic efforts, had not been able to save their colleague

Author Bio: Garrick Gu will graduate from Williams College with the Class of ’17 with a degree in chemistry. He plans to become a physician and possibly a medical scientist as well. Email: Garrick Gu.

Boston Globe Story

Dr. Davidson and family (from the Globe article)

Dr. Davidson and family (from the Globe article)




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