NEO staffer looks back on emotional assignment
By Renee Palagyi, Senior Regional Disaster Program Manager
One year ago, headlines told of the “worst mass shooting in modern American history.” More than 500 people were wounded and 59 were killed when a lone gunman rained a barrage of bullets on the 22,000 people attending the Route 91 Country Music Festival. Many hundreds were also injured as they ran for cover, suffering broken bones, crushing injuries as others fell on top of them, scrapes and bruises as they jammed into small spaces, torn muscles and tendons as they lifted others over fences, raw hands and feet as they crawled through broken glass and debris on the field.
Two days later, I flew to Las Vegas where I was assigned to lead health services for the American Red Cross in the Family Assistance Center at the Las Vegas Convention Center. Over the next 19 days, the teams assisted more than 4,400 people at the center with everything from replacing a lost driver’s license to wrapping an ankle with an elastic bandage, taking information to find a lost pair of glasses to facilitating a referral to an orthopedic surgeon.
- Most people have no idea that the Red Cross is present and assisting in these tragedies but we are there, from Sandy Hook to Pulse nightclub, from the Boston Marathon to Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
- Red Cross engages volunteers, including licensed medical and mental health professionals who are specially trained in mass casualty. Our organization is highly regarded as “the authority” on managing the aftermath.
- Assisting the survivors of mass casualty and the families of the deceased is not only the hardest work we do—mentally and physically exhausting—it is the most rewarding.
I worked with a young man who was in severe pain from a bullet lodged against a nerve in his elbow. He did not want to return to California for surgery until the coroner released his father’s body so that they could “go home together just the way we came here together.”
I met a young couple who were badly bruised and scraped from crawling along the ground to escape bullets coming from what seemed like every direction. They were wearing Cleveland Indians ball caps and we talked about our mutual love of the team. They told me they had run to apartments near the field and began pounding on every door hoping someone would offer shelter. Ultimately, a door opened and there stood a man wearing Yankees apparel. The young woman laughed and said, “We figured it was better than nothing!”
A young father of two toddlers had been to the center the previous day and received assistance for his wife who was hospitalized. He returned, as many did, and sat at a table in the open area drinking a cup of coffee. I walked over to see if there was anything he needed and he looked up with tears in his eyes as he reached for my hand. As I sat down, he told me the doctors had run tests that morning and determined his wife had no brain wave activity. In his words, “I hoped someone here could tell me what to tell the girls.” One of our incredible mental health volunteers was with him for most of the day and made arrangements to go with a casework volunteer back to the home to be with him during that painful discussion.
I have dozens of stories of the people we met and helped in that short time. I think of many of those people now and marvel at their strength and their willingness to allow us to comfort them. I think, too, of how our team grew stronger each day and found the moments that were the hardest brought us closer together. How, at the end of 12 or more hours of hearing the most painful stories and looking into those still-frightened faces, we found friendship within our team and were able to continue our work.
The Red Cross Family Assistance Center closed the doors on a Friday night and the community-supported Vegas Strong Resiliency Center opened the next morning. Like other centers that have opened post-tragedy, it will probably be open as place of comfort and support for the next three to five years.
I was among the last five staff members to leave the center that Friday night. I flew back to Cleveland on Saturday where my husband met me at the airport and we went immediately to our daughter’s home as she hosted a neighborhood chili cook-off. After being immersed in grief for so many days, seeing a group of happy people, getting hugs from my grandchildren and other family members seemed surreal. I realized that I was beginning to heal as I had helped others begin to heal.