During the night shift on February 13, 2023, the Sparrow Hospital emergency room was especially busy. The trauma bays and patient rooms were filled and the entire ER team was working tirelessly to keep their heads above water.
Then a paramedic told critical care transport nurse Laura Curtis that there was an active shooting in the area and they needed to prepare for a trauma influx.
Curtis has worked in emergency medicine for ten years. After starting her career as a paramedic, she now works in the emergency department of Sparrow, transporting extremely sick or injured patients. In between runs, she works in the ER.
With a long career in emergency medicine, Curtis said she has seen a lot, from bad car accidents to extremely sick patients dying in front of her.
She said she had been trained to deal with something like the Feb. 13 shooting, but that didn’t stop it from terrifying her when it actually happened.
After getting warning from the paramedics, Curtis warned the nurse in charge in the ER and the team was able to start preparing for an influx of patients. The emergency room was so busy that night that patients had to be taken out of their rooms and put into the hallway, Curtis said.
Once space for potential patients had been made, the emergency room staff broke into teams and Curtis went to trauma bay 10 to prepare as she would for any incoming trauma. It was here that she felt a buzz from her pager: a shooting victim was coming in.
“I just read the page to the room, so that we knew what we were getting ready for,” Curtis said. “We knew they were coming in and then the pager didn't stop. And it didn't stop, and didn't stop and it was just this constant buzzing.”
Curtis said the non-stop buzzing from her pager made it hard to focus on the one patient she and her team were prepared for. After years in the emergency room, she said putting her emotions aside was a skill she had to learn.
“Your patient needs you in that moment,” Curtis said. “It's not about me in that moment. I'm really lucky that I've had a lot of great mentors that have really kind of taught me how to do that. A lot of years of doing it and you just kind of pack it in a backpack in your back until after the event and that's when you actually get to deal with it.”
Despite a decade-long career dealing with traumatic incidents, Curtis said that night was especially hard because of two distinct differences.
The first was knowing the shooting was happening at her own alma mater.
As an MSU alumnus, Curtis said she had spent hours studying in the Union and had taken several classes in Berkey Hall, the two locations impacted by the shooting. Knowing patients were coming to the hospital from those buildings and that their parents were likely hours away was extremely difficult, she said.
“I had classes where those kids were shot,” Curtis said. “You feel for those students … and you feel for those parents. I came from a really small town and came to MSU and I know how terrified my parents were just leaving me in the dorms. To know we're going to be caring for the sons and daughters of these parents that are so far away from their kids was difficult.”
The other hardest part for Curtis was giving care while the shooting was still actively occurring. Knowing that her coworkers and friends were on the scene and that they could be the next victim was terrifying, she said.
“I went down to surgery, dropped off our patient and in the elevator, I've just got my empty stretcher with the sheets, just all this blood, and I go back to my trauma bay and we get ready for the next one just like we would for any other patient,” Curtis said. “I remember standing there ready for the next one and this could be one of our closest friends I have to care for next and that's everyone's worst fear.”
Once the shooter had been confirmed to be dead and the active situation was over, Curtis said there was a visible sigh of relief in the emergency room.
"We could finally take a breath,” Curtis said.
After all of the patients had been moved out of the emergency room, Curtis said she took a few minutes to grab a drink of water and eat a little bit of food. Then she had to go back to work.
For the entirety of her career as a nurse, Curtis has worked the night shift from 7 p.m. to 7 a.m.. When the first shots were reported at 8:18 p.m., Curtis was only about an hour into her shift. Even after hours of caregiving, once the incident was over, Curtis’ shift was not.
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“It was over within a couple hours maybe, over for the ER, and then we just carried on,” Curtis said. “Just because the shooting was going on didn't mean that there weren't more sick patients coming in. This was arguably one of the hardest nights in my decade of emergency medicine and you just had to go back to doing what you do.”
When her shift finally ended and she was able to go home, Curtis said she sat quietly in the parking lot before driving silently to Leroy’s, the local bar hospital employees frequent after difficult shifts.
She said that night it was the fullest she had ever seen.
“To see, there's the hospital or there's the ER, there's the cops, there's the ICU and the cops and dispatch,” Curtis said. “That was the fullest it's been. To be able to lean on each other and lean on the people that we worked with … our emergency services community was really, really helpful.”
Curtis said that the connections she has with her emergency services team was extremely helpful in getting through the night and healing afterwards. While her coworkers always check in on each other in difficult moments, she said their words had a different tone during and after that night.
“We had the MSU shooting and then I want to say like a week later, we had another big multiple patient trauma,” Curtis said. “It was a lot of the same nurses and a lot of the same characters that were on that night and I remember talking to them and, we always check in, 'Hey, are you okay?' But, it was a very different kind of, 'Hey, I know that I'm not okay with this. How are you doing with it?' And being able to admit that you're not okay to each other and really support each other, it was just hugely important and helpful.”
One of the most impactful healing moments in the aftermath of the shooting was meeting the intensive care unit nurse who took over caring for her patient, Curtis said.
“I remember telling that patient, 'You're not alone',” Curtis said. “'You're not alone. I got you. I'm here, I'm here. I'm not gonna leave you,' and I didn't. But being able to meet her, to meet that ICU nurse, that essentially took over holding that hand for me and her saying that she was there was hugely helpful.”
As an MSU alumnus, the shooting was particularly difficult for Curtis. Living close to campus, she would regularly visit the university and had physical therapy appointments nearby. After the shooting, she said it took two months before she was able to step foot on campus or even attend her appointments.
Returning to campus was another healing moment, she said.
“To see that campus hasn't changed … This horrible, horrible thing happened on campus, but it's still just the beautiful MSU that I remember,” Curtis said. “To be able to go out and see the community that we cared for so deeply that night and to see that it's okay, it was really big.”
Curtis said watching the outpour of support that the MSU community received following the shooting was a major part of her own healing, especially as someone so deeply connected to the school.
“That support was just phenomenal and then knowing that the MSU students … that you guys had the support that I would have wanted as an MSU student was huge,” Curtis said.
Above all else, Curtis said taking her mental health seriously and having a strong support system in place before the shooting made her healing journey much easier. In the wake of such a traumatic event, she said she hopes MSU students know that talking about mental health is okay.
“Everyone sees ER nurses as really strong, and we're not okay, and it's okay,” Curtis said. “It's just hugely important to be able to talk to your friends and your coworkers and it's okay to have a therapist and it's okay to say I need time.”
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