CHATTANOOGA – Just minutes from the scene of a fatal school bus crash, emergency room staff at the children’s hospital were ready to handle the sudden rush of patients.
The accident happened less than five miles from Earlanger Children’s Hospital, which could prove to be a live-saving distance for some of the Woodmore Elementary Students aboard the bus Monday. 11Alive’s Joe Henke spoke with the CEO of that hospital, who called the first few moments after the accident “organized chaos.”
The patients came in quickly, and CEO Don Mueller said they couldn’t have helped every student without help. “We had to partner with the adult side,” he said. “The adult surgeons came to help in every way, shape and form. I can’t think of anything we could have done much better.”
At the height of that organized chaos, Mueller said his ER staff went into “all hands on deck” mode to handle the more than 800 people who flooded the hospital – including parents and relatives looking for their loved ones and school staff helping to identify students.
“They had no IDs with them when they arrived,” he recalled. “None of the parents were present with them when they arrived.”
Many of those students, he said during a news conference, were too dazed or scared, or simply too young to spell their own names or give their parent’s names.
Despite all the challenges, Mueller said the doctors were able to stay focused as they treated patient after patient during a tragedy in their own community.
“As a children’s hospital we hope that you never have to come see us, but we train to be ready when you do,” he said.
As Erlanger’s doctors fell back on their training, Mueller said they worked through the chaos, eventually treating and releasing 19 patients and moving six more from the intensive care unit into more stable condition. On Tuesday, they said they are now focused on the few students who remain in the ICU.
While that news is positive, Mueller also credits the progress to the willingness of other regional hospitals who immediately offered their help.
“We are the only children’s hospital within a two-hour area. We serve a 50,000 square mile radius,” he said. But after reports of the crash broke, Muller said hospitals from across Tennessee and the Children’s Hospital of Atlanta began calling him. Each hospital willing to offer whatever was needed. That assistance proving to be invaluable.
Staff at the hospital will continue to work to ensure each remaining child in their care can be nursed back to health, but the sting of tragedy is still fresh.
“Our condolences go out to all of these families,” Mueller said. “This is the worst tragedy you could hope for. It is just absolutely horrible.”
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