There is no playbook or algorithm that makes the aftermath of a mass shooting a linear pathway to follow. These events are horrific, messy, traumatizing and all too frequent. Until Congress begins to take actionable steps to fund research, limit assault weapons and pass background check reforms, here we are, in the messy aftermath of scores of mass shootings.
When the shooting stops, one phase of the process is called family reunification. It is where family members are either reuniting with their loved ones or being told their loved one had died. Imagine being one of the nurses in the center of that process. Now imagine that you are the school nurse whose school is the chosen site for reunification. Meet Terrie Bolt, the El Paso school nurse who was at the center of reunification after the El Paso shooting.
I met Terrie through a series of emails where she shared her need to connect with colleagues after being involved in the El Paso shooting. She was seeking support, feeling, like many other school nurses in similar circumstances that it is hard to find. We are usually the givers of support and not the receivers. But who do we turn to? Why is it so complicated for us to share our stories? I shared the closed Facebook group for school nurses that was created to provide a safe space to share our experiences. For those who read this post and want to join, all are welcome, there are a few questions to answer first. Here is the link: School Nurses Impacted by School or Community Gun Violence.
With Terrie’s permission, I am sharing an email she sent me about what it was like to be part of the reunification process. It is raw, vivid and should give all of us a sense of the enormity of the trauma that gun violence leaves in its wake. I thank Terrie for her courage and willingness to be bold and #Relentless in giving back to her community and simultaneously raising the issues of survivorship. The ripple effect of gun violence is the untold story when the shooting stops.
Your application of such senseless acts of evil towards good is amazing! I am sure you’ve been told this before- but it had to be said again. Had a chance to view several posts Wednesday after school, just before a gathering. Inspiring. Provided me the strength to speak to my first group about how we can move forward. One participant replied there was a shooting in his home state at the school he taught at formerly. I told him of your web site. He, and many others there, were not aware that we have had more than 283 mass shootings here just this year. Another group member remarked she felt the press was blowing the numbers up for political reasons. (My key to explode- but I didn’t). I explained to her that regardless of one’s political platform the numbers couldn’t be made up.
I asked them all how many victims we had in the recent event here in El Paso. Twenty two was the answer from every adult at the table except my husband who knew where I was going. Yes, twenty two people were shot and died immediately or in days after. In some reports there are numbers that say 22 dead, 26 injured. NOT TRUE! I told them I work with the adults, families and children that have been affected physically or emotionally by the evil act daily. Survivors far out way number of ‘victims’ reported.
What I can’t tell them (ethically I can’t because I’d be sharing to much private information by families that trusted me in the worst moment of their life…to people who just want to hear stories) is not all of those injured were shot. We received and cared for several with superficial injuries from the human desire to escape. We also received hundreds of family members in various stages of shock (not the term thrown around by laymen- the real deal, no color, hypothermia, weak & with tachycardia) in the span of 10 hours.
I won’t tell them that although I have literally held the hands of dying children and adults in my role as a PICU Nurse and later a Radiology International Nurse (I remember vividly taking a child to the phone because they haven’t always been so portable to let a parent say goodbye).
Aug. 3rd is the worst day ever. I’ve never been surrounded by so many humans in such a state of panic and fear. It was palpable, visible, you could even smell it coming off of people as you helped them complete the Reunification Sheet. We had to ask questions beyond Name, Age, Hgt, Wt, etc. We needed identifying marks, tattoos, hair and eye color, what they might be wearing. It’s overwhelming- but we just keep going. Seems wrong to share the heartache of being told by the FBI coordinator 1:1 on the side, “When these family names comes in bring them straight back. No reunification forms are needed.” Another family had been changed forever.
I did share with them that the state wide disaster training paid off. Representatives from all the local, state and Federal agencies showed up and worked in unison to help this community- no power struggles- just doing what they do. Volunteers from across the city- to include many school nurses- came to see how they could help (a tip here for fellow nurses; if they answer the call in any type of Reunification Type Center take a photo ID badge and be prepared to do whatever is asked – may not be nursing, may be helping people with forms, may be doing across the room assessments for shock while ensuring only people who need to be there are present, may be making sure anything coming into the site is approved and has been cleared by security ex. Pizzas, Hamburgers, Water, Salvation Army food items- best to call a food inspector down).
There were dozens of celebrations as we helped reunite families and were able to place the forms into the “Found” file. There were outstanding displays of humanity that day. The organized horrible chaos stopped for a brief moment when one of the buses carrying only the Walmart employees arrived and we were able to just be happy for one second and give them a round of applause and hugs. The sweet young mom who had to park 3 blocks away and walk two toddlers while her infant was in a papoose across her chest just to offer to drive 2 people at a time anywhere in the city they might need to go. She knew the cars were on lock down in the mall and at the Walmart. The two young Army Medics that got passed the barricade and ran 3 blocks while carrying 2 cases of water and their field bag to help in any way they could (those two I kept with me- they were fabulous). The frail elderly woman who came in shocky, was helped to find her family, and an hour later showed up with bags and bags of Whataburger. (Side story, just for you, when she came in, we hugged and I had one of the soldiers help her carry her bags to the Reunification Specialists without a word. Right behind her came 6 high ranking political leaders- they had to present Id and sign in before passing my station. A bear of a State Trooper behind me asked if I realized I’d just let a lady with bags of food pass without question & then “shut down” a congresswoman and her crew. I was about at my limit. “Yes, sir I know exactly what I did. An hour ago, we were praying together that she would find her husband of 57 years. She did- he’s safe. The people here helped her. She needed to pay it forward. The others need a photo op- as evidenced by the assistant carrying the cell phone up- I had to tell her no photos.” The bear looked surprised for a minute & then gave me that sweet Texas smile and said, “I’d of done the thing nurse.”
Wow- I am not going to re-read this because I am just starting my school day. It was supposed to be a quick note lol. Have an amazing Friday.
Terrie Bolt, BSN, RN, NCSN, J&J Fellow
Bio: My name is Terrie Bolt. I live in El Paso, Texas. I am married to my husband Tim, a police officer in some respect since the age of 18, for 34 years now. I graduated from the University of Texas El Paso in 1991 and started my career in PICU and later as a Radiology Nurse. In 1999, when our third son was almost 1 year, we decided that Hospital schedules & rotating Police shifts were not conducive to the family life we desired. El Paso Independent School District hired me to work as an Elementary School Nurse in 1999.
I transferred to MacArthur Intermediate School Nurse in 2002 and promptly moved in down the road. I have worked providing nursing care and education to both family members and children from age 3 to 15 as well as staff. On August 2nd my greatest challenges for the coming school year seemed to be Measles Prevention and the implementation of Virtual Medicine into an already packed daily schedule. August 3rd that all changed. An act of ridiculous violence occurred in our community in the form of an active shooter. Today my daily challenge is to be in the moment and alert while helping my community heal, learn, and change how each of us deals with conflict, anger, and disappointments.