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When the words "Code Orange" boomed out of the intercoms of the Montreal General Hospital shortly before 1:00 p.m. on September 13, the staff hadn't yet heard about the events unfolding at Dawson College just down the hill, but they knew whatever it was, it was catastrophic. The last time they had heard those words was September 11, 2001, as a precautionary measure.
In anticipation of possible casualties, pre-determined teams began shuttling all but the most serious cases from the downstairs emergency ward to the floors above. They were still clearing the ward when the ambulances began arriving.
In a matter of minutes, the ward was full of the victims of Kimveer Gill's murderous shooting rampage. Dr. Bruno Bernardin and Dr. Tarek Razek assessed each patient and supervised their care. The most serious case, a patient with a head wound, and others shot in the chest and abdomen, were immediately dispatched to surgery. Soon after, parents and friends began streaming in, desperately seeking news of their loved ones. But the urgency of the situation meant that there was little time for sharing information, saving lives was all that counted. "It was organized chaos," said Razek, head of the MUHC trauma program.
The hospital's team of psychiatrists and social workers took control. Acting as liaisons between doctors and families, they found out and passed along as much information as they could.
By now, off-duty doctors, nurses and hospital staff were showing up, anxious to lend a hand after hearing the horrible news. "Most of these people came in of their own volition," said Razek. "Their tremendous willingness to help was really something to see." By the end of the day, 11 people had been admitted to the Montreal General while two others had been taken to the Jewish General. Nineteen-year-old Anastasia DeSousa had already perished from her injuries at the scene.
The next morning, the General's mental health professionals began hooking up with outside agencies from Dawson, Concordia University and the CLSC to draft a plan of action for the difficult days and weeks that lay ahead. The MUHC spearheaded the implementation of a hotline manned by psychiatric nurses trained to distribute information and deal with distressed callers. Within the first 24 hours, hotline operators handled more than 160 calls.
At the re-opening of Dawson on September 19, 57 therapists were on hand to provide support for people having difficulty coping with the situation. The need was so great that by noon 30 more therapists had been called in. "It is normal that people are having intense reactions, crying, anxiety, nightmares," says Karine Josée Iguartua, the MUHC's director of emergency psychiatry services. "But a vital part of their recovery is getting back to school."