The fight for their lives: A reporters account

by Aaron Derfel

Dawson headlineIn the days following the shooting rampage at Dawson College, I was sent by The Gazette to the Montreal General Hospital to report on how the gunshot victims were recovering and to try to get interviews with family members. It was a dispiriting task. I felt like an ambulance chaser invading the privacy of some of the families.

After attending a couple of news conferences by the doctors, it dawned on me that there was a much bigger story. The news media were focusing on what one TV reporter called “the score” – how many patients had been discharged from the hospital, how many were still in the ICU and whether some were on the edge of death. None of the reporters seemed to be interested in how the trauma team had saved lives.

As a reporter who had covered both the Ecole Polytechnique massacre and the 1992 shooting spree at Concordia University by a deranged professor, I had grown frustrated with the media’s morbid fascination with the killers. Yes, it was important to write about them, but what about those who saved lives?

I approached the PR staff and told them about my idea: that I wanted to write a narrative about how the trauma team responded. I also spoke with Tarek Razek, the chief of the ICU. He had read some of my feature stories in The Gazette and understood what I wanted to do. He agreed to an interview about a week later.

As I began my research, I knew that the spine of the story would have to be a detailed chronology. That would mean getting the full names of every one of the 11 patients, their ages, their exact injuries and the times they arrived in the trauma bay. I knew that if I obtained that information, my story would come across as authoritative. The chronology would also create a feeling of suspense in the reader.

The problem is that the hospital was reluctant to give that information for reasons of patient confidentiality. I decided not to ask Razek right away, but to begin with a general interview and hope that I would gain his trust eventually. I used that approach in interviews with more than a dozen other people: doctors, nurses, hospital technicians, PR staff, Dawson students who had witnessed the rampage and family members.

Each person I interviewed gave me bits of information that I put together like pieces of a puzzle. I soon realized that some doctors were willing to divulge elements of the chronology if they knew that I had spoken with family members. This implied consent on the part of the families, and some doctors felt that they were no longer bound by patient confidentiality.

When I finished the chronology, I discovered that there had been three waves of ambulances pulling up at the hospital. This naturally served as the beginning, middle and end of the story. I compiled a list of each of the victims, the time of their arrival and the nature of their injuries. The graphic arts department at The Gazette came up with this great idea to showcase the information as one long headline, with the names in red.

During the research process, it was difficult to sleep at night because I had to absorb so many disturbing anecdotes. I had expressed concern to some of the editors that my story might be too graphic. However, I concluded that what gave the story credibility and impact were the details – from the blood on the floor of the trauma bay, to the shouts of the doctors, to the precise trajectory of some of the bullets entering the bodies of the victims.

The writing of the story took about two long days. It wasn’t too difficult to write. The hardest part was to know when to introduce characters. One of the surgeons, Kosar Khwaja, played an important role in the trauma-team response. But I couldn’t introduce him to readers early in the story because that would have slowed down the action. Then the image hit me of Khwaja running across the parking lot to the trauma bay. That’s how I would slip him into the story – well after I had set up some of the other main characters.

Many of the details were confirmed by at least two sources. For example, Razek and Anne Thomas, the trauma nurse, separately confirmed the details about the blood on the floor. There were some details that I had to leave out because I couldn’t get double confirmation or the information was contradicted. I also relied on some documentation that I was allowed to see.

Certainly, my experience on the medical beat for the past eight years helped me in writing this story. I wanted this reconstruction to be educational as well. The public is unaware of what goes on in a trauma bay. I was gratified to learn a few weeks after the story was published that a rural hospital in Ontario had decided to reprint the article in its newsletter to educate the staff on what goes on during a Code Orange.

Read the story published in The Montreal Gazette.