Paris death toll could have been worse but for this ironic twist

November 18, 2015 08:35
Emergency services are shown in action moments after the attacks. Hours earlier, they took part in a simulated mass shooting. Photo: AFP

Paris emergency personnel took part in a drill just hours after Friday's coordinated terrorist attacks killed nearly 130 people.

It was a bizarre twist of fate that foreshadowed the worst mass killing in France since World War II.

But it was this heightened preparedness, prompted by the Charlie Hebdo attacks in January, that saved so many lives in the aftermath of the latest bloodshed.

More than 400 people received medical treatment in hospitals, dozens in critical condition.

But the second spike in the death toll never came. Just three of those hospitalized with grave injuries have died in the four days since the attacks, according to Bloomberg.

The world-class status of the French healthcare system deserves much of the credit.

But a good deal of preparation, experience, and more than a little bit of lucky timing also helped save lives. 

During Friday's exercise, trauma specialists used a centralized dispatch system to set priorities and direct victims to the ER best equipped to treat their injuries.

Ambulance services made sure they were ready to roll, and hospitals verified that surgeons and staff could be quickly summoned to treat arriving victims.

"We tested every link in the chain," Dr. Mathieu Raux, emergency room chief at the Pitié-Salpetrière hospital in Paris, said.

Because Paris emergency physicians work 24-hour shifts, virtually every ER doctor on duty in the city Friday night had already taken part in the exercise earlier that day.

The training paid off at Pitié-Salpetrière, a sprawling medical complex in southeastern Paris that specializes in emergency treatment of what doctors call "penetration trauma," such as gunshot wounds.

The hospital was alerted to the attacks at 9:40 p.m., 20 minutes after explosions at the Stade de France marked the beginning of the rampage.

Within an hour, just as the first ambulances were pulling up, Pitié-Salpetrière had 10 operating rooms prepared and fully staffed with surgeons and surgical nurses.

Pitié-Salpetrière received 52 victims in total, 25 of which had suffered critical injuries.

"Some were shot in the head, some had bullets everywhere, in the chest, arms, legs," Raux said. "I never, ever saw anything like it."

Two patients at Pitié-Salpetrière died shortly after arrival and a third victim died at another hospital in the city, according to a spokeswoman for Paris's public hospital system. No additional attack victims have died since Saturday, although 29 remained in intensive care as of Monday night.

Attack victims also benefited from the battlefield experience of veterans who now hold key positions in Paris's emergency response system.

Philippe Juvin, head of emergency services at the Georges Pompidou hospital, a major trauma center, served as an anesthesiologist in Afghanistan in 2008.

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