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48 hours in Paris: a doctor talks about treating the victims of terror

48 hours in Paris: a doctor talks about treating the victims of terror


"These were things you only see in war."

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Marie was dining with friends Friday night when she received the news: reports of gunfire just a few blocks away from her Paris apartment. First it was Le Cambodge, a popular Cambodian restaurant; then it was Le Carillon, a perennially packed bar just across the street. They immediately left the table and huddled around the TV, texting friends and family as the horror unfolded at several other sites across the city. Paris was under siege, and the images were both terrifying and impossible to ignore.

But Marie went to bed because she had an early morning the next day. As a 25-year-old resident in surgery, she's spent the last month working at a hospital in the 10th arrondissement, not far from where the restaurant and concert hall attacks unfolded; on Saturday, she was scheduled to work a 24-hour shift beginning at 6AM. After seeing the carnage Friday night, she knew it would be an especially busy day.

About 30 minutes into her sleep, Marie received an alert. The French hospital system had announced a "plan blanc" — an emergency order to mobilize doctors and ambulances across the city. She was asked to call a number to see whether she was needed, but she couldn't get through. So at around 2AM, with the metros closed and many streets blocked off, she rode her bike over to the hospital.

"These were things you only see in war."

There weren't many doctors when she arrived, and the few that were there were "working like crazy" to deal with the influx of victims. Some came directly from the Bataclan concert hall and Le Carillon cafe, others were transferred from other hospitals. Doctors were scrambling to free up beds for the patients and repurpose rooms into operating theaters. Things calmed down as more staff arrived, and before long, she was in scrubs and assisting surgeries — just like any other day at the office.

"Everyone was very calm, no one was crying, no one was panicking. It was all very professional," she told me Wednesday night over the phone. "All [the doctors] were just very focused on making sure it went well."

As a medical resident, Marie is obliged work in different surgical departments across Paris. For her six-month stint at this hospital, she works in orthopedic surgery, which normally involves prosthetics or knee operations for older patients — not the young, late-night revelers who descended upon her ward that night. She didn't have to work with the more critically injured patients in neurosurgery or the intensive care unit, but the injuries she treated were unlike anything she, or anyone else, had ever seen — severed arms, shattered bones, unfiltered gore.

"I'm a resident, and I'm still young, but even my boss had never seen that," she said. "These were things you only see in war." The bullet wounds inflicted by the attackers' Kalashnikovs were particularly complex to treat. "The bullets don't just pass through — they explode and break the bones into 1,000 pieces. These are things that are made to destroy."

About 20 to 25 patients passed through her ward that night, and they were mostly in their 20s. They were still in shock when they first arrived, and many kept talking about what they had been through, either as hostages at the Bataclan or as innocent diners a few blocks away.

"These were people who were 20, 25. They were children."

"It was really just young people, with their big groups of friends — people like you and me," she said (we know each other through mutual friends). "People drinking beers, doing nothing. These were people who were 20, 25. They were children."

There was more confusion outside the operating room, as hospital workers raced to identify patients and respond to questions from distressed friends and family. "What was horrible was that there were many young people who came looking for their friends, their boyfriends or girlfriends," Marie said. "They were saying, ‘I saw my boyfriend take a bullet in his stomach, but then we were separated and I don't know where he is, have you seen him?' And it's horrible because we often can't respond to their questions. Most found out that they had lost their friends that night."

Others were luckier. A Facebook group created by Marie's medical school classmates became a de facto person finder, with doctors across the city working to reunite their patients with their loved ones. A friend of hers was reunited with her boyfriend that night, after her colleagues used the group to figure out which hospital he was in.

None of Marie's patients died that night, and so far, she hasn't had to amputate any limbs. The more seriously injured are still at the hospital and will likely be there for a while. Their psychological scars will take even longer to heal.

"At the beginning, Friday and Saturday, they were very calm," Marie said. "They knew very well what had happened, better than us. They talked about the scene at the Bataclan, how they were fired on, how they hid, but I think they were still blinded by the shock."

As time wore on, their emotional states began to diverge. "Some were very distressed, so we had to put locks on the windows, and psychiatrists came every day," she explained. "Others just needed to talk, they needed to tell us everything."

"And then there were those who were less seriously injured, who were ready to go home, but they didn't want to. They were afraid. So we had to psychologically prepare them, to tell them, ‘No, it's okay, you really don't have any reason to be here anymore, life will continue.'"

"It's horrible to live in fear. It shouldn't have to be like that."

Hundreds of victims were received at hospitals across Paris following the attacks, in a response that President François Hollande praised as "remarkable." Independent doctors and nurses had been on strike over proposed health care reforms prior to Friday's attacks, but they immediately ended it and sprung into action as the violence spread. At Marie's hospital, the former chief of surgery, who had left his post to head up a private clinic, returned Friday night to oversee the operations.

For Marie, the grieving only began once she returned to her apartment on Sunday. She had spent nearly 48 hours at the epicenter of terror, but was isolated from all media, unable to process the scale and brutality of what happened. She immediately went to sleep, and after catching up on the news, went out for a coffee with some friends that afternoon.

It wasn't long been before panic set in. As she and her friends sat on a terrace near République, people suddenly began running through the streets after hearing what they thought was gunfire. They rushed inside the cafe, laid on the ground, and held their breaths in terror as helicopters flew overhead. This time, it was a false alarm — just some "pranksters" who set off firecrackers. But Marie, like many others here, still can't escape the fear of what may come next.

"It's still terrifying. I just came back from a restaurant, and I was scared," she told me. "I'm scared when I go on the metro, I'm scared of everything. But it's horrible to live in fear. It shouldn't have to be like that."