What Can You Do During a Mass Shooting? This MD Found Out

James Sebesta, MD, as told to Sarah Yahr Tucker

August 16, 2023


Emergencies happen anywhere, anytime, and sometimes medical professionals find themselves in situations where they are the only ones who can help. Is There a Doctor in the House? is a Medscape series telling these stories.

Sunday night. Las Vegas. Jason Aldean had just started playing.

My wife and I were at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival with three other couples; two of them were our close friends. We were sitting in the VIP section, a tented area right next to the stage. We started hearing what I was convinced were fireworks.

Dr James Sebesta

I've been in the army for 20 some years. I've been deployed and shot at multiple times. But these shots were far away. And you don't expect people to be shooting at you at a concert.

I was on the edge of the VIP area, so I could see around the corner of the tent. I looked up at the Mandalay Bay and saw the muzzle flash in the hotel window. That's when I knew.

I screamed, "Somebody's shooting at us! Everybody get down!"

It took a while for people to realize what was going on. When the first couple volleys sprayed into the crowd, nobody understood. But once enough people had been hit and dropped, everyone knew, and it was just mass exodus.

People screamed and ran everywhere. Some of them tried to jump over the front barrier so they could get underneath the stage. Others were trying to pick up loved ones who'd been shot.

The next 15 minutes are a little foggy. I was helping my wife and the people around us to get down. Funny things come back to you afterward. One of my friends was carrying a 16-ounce beer in his hand. Somebody's shooting at him and he's walking around with his beer like he's afraid to put it down. It was so surreal.

We got everybody underneath the tent, and then we just sat there. There would be shooting and then a pause. You'd think it was over. And then there would be more shooting and another pause. It felt like it never was going to stop.

After a short period of time, somebody came in with an official badge, maybe FBI, who knows. They said, "Okay, everybody up. We've got to get you out of here." So, we all got up and headed across the stage. The gate they were taking us to was in full view of the shooter, so it wasn't very safe.

As I got up, I looked out at the field. Bodies were scattered everywhere. I'm a trauma surgeon by trade. I couldn't just leave.

I told my two best friends to take my wife with them. My wife lost her mind at that point. She didn't want me to run out on the field. But I had to. I saw the injured and they needed help. Another buddy and I jumped over the fence and started taking care of people.

The feeling of being out on the field was one of complete frustration. I was in sandals, shorts, and a t-shirt. We had no stretchers, no medical supplies, no nothing. I didn't have a belt to use as a tourniquet. I didn't even have a Band-Aid.

Worse: We were seeing high-velocity gunshot wounds that I've seen for 20 years in the Army. I know how to take care of them. I know how to fix them. But there wasn't a single thing I could do.

We had to get people off the field, so we started gathering up as many as we could. We didn't know if we were going to get shot at again, so we were trying to hide behind things as we ran. Our main objective was just to get people to a place of safety.

A lot of it is a blur. But a few patients stick out in my mind....

A father and son. The father had been shot through the abdomen, exited out through his back. He was in severe pain and couldn't walk.

A young girl shot in the arm. Her parents carrying her.

A group of people doing CPR on a young lady. She had a gunshot wound to the head or neck. She was obviously dead. But they were still doing chest compressions in the middle of the field. I had to say to them, "She's dead. You can't save her. You need to get off the field." But they wouldn't stop. We picked her up and took her out while they continued to do CPR.

Later, I realized I knew that woman. She was part of a group of friends that we would see at the festival. I hadn't recognized her. I also didn't know that my friend Marco was there. A month or two later, we figured out that he was one of the people doing CPR. And I was the guy who came up and said his friend was dead.

Some people were so badly injured we couldn't lift them. We started tearing apart the fencing used to separate the crowd and slid sections of the barricades under the wounded to carry them. We also carried off a bunch of people who were dead.

We were moving patients to a covered bar area where we thought they would be safer. What we didn't know was there was an ambulance rally point at the very far end of the field. Unfortunately, we had no idea it was there.

I saw a lot of other first responders out there, people from the fire department, corpsmen from the Navy, medics. I ran into an anesthesia provider and a series of nurses.

When we got everybody off the field, we started moving them into vehicles. People were bringing their trucks up. One guy even stole a truck so he could drive people to the ED. There wasn't a lot of triage. We were just stacking whoever we could into the backs of these pickups.

Dr Sebesta and friends at the 2017 Route 91 Harvest Festival.

I tried to help a nurse taking care of a lady who had been shot in the neck. She was sitting sort of half upright with the patient lying in her arms. When I reached to help her, she said, "You can't move her."

"We need to get her to the hospital," I replied.

"This is the only position that this lady has an airway," she said. "You're going to have to move both of us together. If I move at all, she loses her airway."

So, a group of us managed to slide something underneath and lift them into the back of a truck.

Loading the wounded went on for a while. And then, just like that, everybody was gone.

I walked back out onto this field which not too long ago held 30,000 people. It was as if aliens had just suddenly beamed everyone out.

There was stuff on the ground everywhere ― blankets, clothing, single boots, wallets, purses. I walked past a food stand with food still cooking on the grill. There was a beer tap still running. It was the weirdest feeling I'd ever had in my life.

After that, things got a little crazy again. There had been a report of a second shooter, and no one knew if it was real or not. The police started herding a group of us across the street to the Tropicana. We were still trying to take cover as we walked there. We went past a big lion statue in front of one of the casinos. I have a picture from two years earlier of me sitting on the back of that lion. I remember thinking: Now I'm hunkered down behind the same lion hiding from a shooter. Times change.

They brought about 50 of us into a food court, which was closed. They wouldn't tell us what was going on. And they wouldn't let us leave. This went on for hours. Meanwhile, I had dropped my cell phone on the field, so my wife couldn't get ahold of me, and later she told me she assumed I'd been shot. I was just hoping that she was safe.

People were huddled together, crying, holding each other. Most were wearing Western concert-going stuff, which for a lot of them wasn't very much clothing. The hotel eventually brought some blankets.

I was covered in blood. My shirt, shorts, and sandals were soaked. It was running down my legs. I couldn't find anything to eat or drink. At one point, I sat down at a slot machine, put a hundred dollars in, and started playing slots. I didn't know what else to do. It didn't take me very long to lose it all.

Finally, I started looking for a way to get out. I checked all the exits, but there were security and police there. Then I ran into a guy who said he had found a fire exit. When we opened the fire door, there was a big security guard there, and he said, "You can't leave."

We said, "Try to stop us. We're out of here."

Another thing I'll always remember ― after I broke out of the Tropicana, I was low crawling through the bushes along the Strip toward my hotel. I got a block away and stood up to cross the street. I pushed the crosswalk button and waited. There were no cars, no people. I've just broken all the rules, violated police orders, and now I'm standing there waiting for a blinking light to allow me to cross the street!

I made it back to my hotel room around 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning. My wife was hysterical because I hadn't been answering my cell phone. I came in, and she gave me a big hug, and I got in the shower. Our plane was leaving in a few hours, so we laid down, but didn't sleep.

As we were getting ready to leave, my wife's phone rang, and it was my number. A guy at the same hotel had found my phone on the field and called the "in case of emergency" number. So, I got my phone back.

It wasn't easy to deal with the aftermath. It really affected everybody's life. To this day, I'm particular about where we sit at concerts. My wife isn't comfortable if she can't see an exit. I now have a med bag in my car with tourniquets, pressure dressings, airway masks for CPR.

I'll never forget that feeling of absolute frustration. That lady without an airway ― I could've put a trach in her very quickly and made a difference. Were they able to keep her airway? Did she live?

The father and son ― did the father make it? I have no idea what happened to any of them. Later, I went through and looked at the pictures of all the people who had died, but I couldn't recognize anybody.

The hardest part was being there with my wife. I've been in places where people are shooting at you, in vehicles that are getting bombed. I've always believed that when it's your time, it's your time. If I get shot, well, okay, that happens. But if she got shot or my friends...that would be really tough.

A year later, I gave a talk about it at a conference. I thought I had worked through everything. But all of those feelings, all of that helplessness, that anger, everything came roaring back to the surface again. They asked me how I deal with it, and I said, "Well...poorly." I'm the guy who sticks it in a box in the back of his brain, tucks it in and buries it with a bunch of other boxes, and hopes it never comes out again. But every once in a while, it does.

There were all kinds of people out on that field, some with medical training, some without, all determined to help, trying to get those injured people where they needed to be. In retrospect, it does make you feel good. Somebody was shooting at us, but people were still willing to stand up and risk their lives to help others.

We still talk with our friends about what happened that night. Over the years, it's become less and less. But there's still a text sent out every year on that day, "Today is the anniversary. Glad we're all alive. Thanks for being our friends."

James Sebesta, MD, is a bariatric surgeon with MultiCare Health System in Tacoma, Washington.

Are you a medical professional with a dramatic story outside the clinic? Medscape would love to consider your story for Is There a Doctor in the House? Please email your contact information and a short summary to access@webmd.net.

Read more in the series:

In 133-Vehicle Pile-Up, Bleeding Paramedic Helps While Hurt

A Death Valley Crisis Forces an MD to Use All Her Training

MD Rushes in After Lightning Strikes Four People at White House

Sudden Bedtime Aneurysm Turns MD Couple into Doctor-Patient

Doctor Spots a Gunshot Victim Staggering Down His Street

Read the entire series here.

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