May 9th, 2013

St. X alum races to rescue at Boston bombings


Roy Walter

Assistant Editor

St. X alum races to rescue at Boston bombings
Rick Bowles

It was 2:30 or so in the afternoon on a cool, crisp, sunny April day in Boston. Rick Bowles had returned home after working a nearly 14-hour shift at Beth Israel Deaconess hospital and was sorting through emails and catching up on paperwork for his job as a surgery intern.

Suddenly, he heard the first blast … Ka-BOOM! Then the second Ka-BOOM!

Bowles’ first thought was it sounded like a bomb, but he dismissed the idea, thinking it probably was just celebratory fireworks at the nearby Boston Marathon.

But minutes later a friend texted him, asking if he was OK. So he checked CNN’s website and discovered that, indeed, two bombs had gone off near the finish line of the race.

“I knew that something bad had happened and that I needed to get down there,” Bowles said.

A former St. Xavier High School wrestler and powerlifter, Bowles is a humble yet confident man of 34 who wants to do what is right. So he grabbed his white coat with his ID badge clipped to it, some trauma shears and scissors and sprinted the three blocks from his apartment to the finish line. As he ran he passed hordes of frightened people going the opposite direction in a mass exodus.

When Bowles got to the scene of the bombs, police and firemen had established a perimeter to keep people away from the injured. Bowles told a fireman he was a doctor and could help, and he guided him to a police officer who in turn took Bowles inside a long tent and told him to go to the back “where all the bad stuff is.”

Inside the tent, the ground was littered with surgical gloves and dirty, bloody gauze. Bowles said the scene there “wasn’t total chaos because you could tell that within small areas of the tent there were people who were kind of working together to do something. But within the tent there were a lot of people working on a lot of patients and it was very noisy. It was very hectic.”

When a nurse saw that he was a surgeon, she directed him toward a patient she described as “super-critical.” Bowles rushed over, but the person was dead.

“I don’t know whether it was the boy or either of the two women, but there was nothing I could do,” Bowles said. “That area was being used as a morgue.”

That was in the first 10-12 minutes, by his estimation.

“What struck me immediately was that it was actually organized fairly well for a mass casualty immediate response,” he said.

All of the incoming casualties came into one end of the tent, and they exited on the opposite end into ambulances. Bowles estimates there were 25-30 ambulances lined up and ready to go as soon as a victim was loaded.

“They would wheel a gurney out and put somebody on it, slam it back in the ambulance and take off,” he said. “It was just this steady flow. That was, I think, one of the things that saved so many lives.”

The back of the tent was divided into two areas. The area to the left of the aisle was for level one trauma, meaning for people with immediately life-threatening injuries. Level two, to the right, was for patients whose injuries were very serious but not quite so life-threatening.

Bowles walked to level one to see what he could do to help, but most of those victims were ready to be loaded into ambulances. So he went to level two.

There, he went from patient to patient, assessing injuries, applying tourniquets and changing dressings that were soaked in blood. In addition to the injuries, many patients had hearing loss from the explosions and had trouble picking up what Bowles was saying.

He also held a lot of hands and comforted people.

“If I were in that situation and I weren’t a doctor … I’d want somebody to explain that if you can move your foot and have pulses, you can feel anything, you’re going to be OK,” Bowles said. “You may need surgery or stitches or something, but you’re going to be OK.”

One in particular he remembered was a runner named Sarah who was shaking, crying and extremely scared.

Bowles told her, “ ‘Sarah, my name’s Rick and I’m one of the surgery residents at Israel. You have a bad cut on your leg, but you’re moving everything, I can feel your pulses in your extremities, you can feel me touching you, so your leg is going to be fine. … So just hang in there.’ That’s the kind of stuff I did.”

By late afternoon all of the injured had either been taken away or loaded into an ambulance, so Bowles knew his next move should be to report for duty at the hospital because he knew it was being slammed with bombing victims.

He recognized two nurses from Beth Israel Deaconess’s emergency room and suggested they go with him. But Boston’s subway system had been shut down, and the hospital was 2½ miles away.

So they approached a police officer, who commandeered a vacant ambulance. Bowles and the nurses climbed in the back, and they got a high-speed police escort to the hospital, sirens screaming all the way.

“I found that to be a little humorous,” Bowles said with a laugh.” I’m a surgery intern, which means I’m not very high up on the totem pole, and I could hear the ambulance driver on the radio telling Israel he had an inbound surgical team. And I just thought that was giving me way too much credit.”

The hospital was on lockdown when they got there, and they were greeted at the emergency room door by hospital staff. Bowles ran inside and found some of his surgery colleagues, and they huddled to make a plan of what they needed to do.

Most of the injuries they encountered involved either mangled bones or damaged veins and arteries. Or both. Many of the injured had trouble breathing and/or hearing loss, and others needed wounds cleaned or shrapnel removed.

Some patients were deemed in need of immediate surgery and were wheeled right into an operating room, while others who were slightly more stable were taken to the intensive care unit to wait for an OR to open up. Any patient who was in the ICU before the blasts and was stable enough to be moved was taken to an increased monitor room.

Bowles, who is in his first year of residency, assisted on one operation that day. Most of the surgeries were performed by attending physicians or senior level residents in their sixth or seventh year.

“My surgical experience that night was pretty minimal.” Bowles said. “But I knew what my role was and where I could be most helpful, and that’s what I tried to focus on.”

About 7 p.m. a group of police officers came into the surgery area to talk to the medical team. They interviewed Bowles and the others one-on-one to see if they had seen anything or heard any patients who might provide clues to the bombing.  

When they had given their statements, the doctors went back to work. All of the bombing victims had been treated by 11:30 p.m., when on a normal night Bowles would have been almost into the middle of his shift – it starts at 6 p.m. So he left to take care of the patients who were scheduled for him that night, and he didn’t leave for home until 7:30 or so the next morning.

“I didn’t really stop to think about it too much, but I had gotten only about an hour or so of sleep over 36 hours,” he said.

Answering the call

Interestingly enough, medicine is a second career for Bowles. He began his adult life as an engineer working for GE, and that job took him to Cincinnati, China and Boston. He was successful and well-paid, but he was lacking fulfillment in his work.

After he moved back to Louisville to work for GE Appliances, he took a long, hard look at his life and where it was headed.

“I didn’t feel like at the end of a 40-year career I would have made much of a mark on the world,” he said. “I wanted to feel like I would have done something with my life.”

He felt a call toward medicine. So he took night classes and studied for the medical school entrance exam.

“I stopped being an engineer in August of 2008 on a Friday and started being a medical student on Monday,” Bowles recalled. “It was a very interesting transition from wearing a suit and tie to wearing shorts, flip flops and a T-shirt and lugging a backpack around again.”

The training he learned in the University of Louisville’s medical school helped prepare him for what happened last month in Boston, but much of the inspiration came years before.

Bowles said he went racing to the finish line, in good part, because of memories of Sept. 11. He was 23 when terrorists took down the World Trade Center, and he remembers feeling angry and powerless to do something to help.

“I decided if I was ever in a city where that happened I would go and help because that’s what I needed to do,” he said. “I’m a first-year intern; I’m not a senior resident or anything, but I knew I could help in some way. And I just felt like I had to. That’s why I got into medicine.”

A story in the Los Angeles Times called Bowles one of the heroes of the Boston bombings, but Bowles insists he wasn’t.

He points to the people who were there when the bombs went off and sprang into action: the police officers, runners, military personnel and spectators who helped the injured.

“They were in immediate danger,” Bowles said. “They were right there. I would consider those people much more heroic.”

However, he admits that he does feel good about what he did, and he would do it again in a heartbeat.

“Not that I would ever wish that scenario on anyone, but I’m glad that, if it had to happen, that I was close enough and able to respond,” he said. “I didn’t feel powerless this time and I had some response. I didn’t have that taken away from me like everybody did on Sept. 11.”

The stop where Bowles catches and exits the subway is right at the Boston Marathon’s finish line, where the bombs went off and where he ran to treat people, not knowing if there would be more explosions. He walks that area every single day, a constant reminder of the time he bravely did the right thing.


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