‘It was absolute chaos’: After mass shooting in Las Vegas, former WMed resident worked for hours to help victims

Dr. Jess Kingsberg
Jess Kingsberg, MD

In the days after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Jess Kingsberg spotted the photo on social media, a snapshot of the bloodstained floors in the emergency room at Sunrise Hospital & Medical Center in Las Vegas.

The photo captured the horror of the late hours of October 1 and the early morning of October 2 after 58 people were killed and almost 500 more were injured when a gunman opened fire from his hotel room on a crowd of concertgoers at the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival.

The story the photo doesn’t tell, said Kingsberg, an orthopaedic trauma surgeon at Sunrise Hospital, is that of the housekeeping crew that mopped the floors of the ER every five minutes as victim after victim streamed into the Level 2 trauma center for treatment.

“It was absolute chaos,” said Dr. Kingsberg, 33, who called Kalamazoo home for five years before completing her orthopaedic surgery residency at WMed in 2015. “In residency, my record for consults was 16. I think I probably saw over 50 people in those first six hours. They kept on bringing in more people. They were cleaning the floors every five minutes. My shoes got ruined.”

Dr. Kingsberg has been at Sunrise Hospital since September 2016 and moved to Las Vegas following a one-year orthopaedic trauma fellowship at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh. She’s a native of New Jersey and earned her MD degree from the University of Toledo College of Medicine and Life Sciences in 2010.  

Her days at Sunrise Hospital are busy, she said, and she typically handles between five and 10 orthopaedic trauma cases a week in addition to other assignments, including being on call six to eight times per month while also handling pelvic and diabetic foot cases.

On the night of the mass shooting, she was asleep when she got a call at home at about midnight. The person on the other end of the line alerted Dr. Kingsberg that there had been a mass casualty incident in the city and the hospital was expecting 10 to 20 patients.

Dr. Kingsberg said her drive to Sunrise Hospital took about an hour as she navigated her way around several street closures in downtown Las Vegas. By 1 a.m., she arrived.

“I’ve never seen so many ambulances in front of the hospital and there were people everywhere,” she said.

In the midst of it all, Dr. Kingsberg got to work.

She said her training – both in residency and fellowship – taught her that surgeons, especially in the OR, have to be “the calmest person in the room.” That training, she said, kicked in as she set about helping the victims of the mass shooting.

That night, she was the first doctor to evaluate many of the victims from the shooting. After arriving at the hospital, she spoke quickly with the the triage nurse and doctor and instructed them to send every patient with presumed isolated extremity injuries to the hall of the ER where Dr. Kingsberg could take a look at them.

A total of 214 victims ended up at Sunrise Hospital in the wake of the mass shooting as it was the closest medical facility to the concert venue.

“I was writing things on post-it notes and sticking them to people for what my treatment plan was,” she said. “No one had a chart because there were so many people.”

Dr. Kingsberg did preliminary triage on numerous patients as they arrived, dividing them into an immediate surgery group, an observation group and a discharge group. For six hours, she worked tirelessly in the ER, cutting off tourniquets with her bandage scissors, washing out bullet wounds and putting splints on patients. At different points, she transported several patients by wheelchair for X-rays and then interpreted the X-rays herself.

She said the stream of patients that night filled the hall of the hospital’s ER, prompting her to move into a radiology waiting room where she could continue patient evaluations. When that room filled with victims, Dr. Kingsberg said the overflow was sent to the hospital’s pediatrics emergency room where her work continued.

Dr. Kingsberg said that once enough patients had been discharged, she moved the patients she placed in the immediate surgery and observation groups during triage into an X-ray waiting room where she could continue to check on all of them at the same time. She was the only orthopaedic physician in the ER that night and while caring for the two groups of patients, she also assisted ER physicians and other trauma surgeons at the hospital who requested her help in interpreting X-rays and seeing patients with multiple traumatic injures and axial skeletal injuries.

At different points that night, Dr. Kingsberg said she called requesting use of one of the hospital’s operating rooms. Her requests, initially, were denied, as the ORs were already in use by other surgeons. 

By 7:30 a.m. on October 2, an operating room at the hospital opened and Dr. Kingsberg began helping 22 victims from the mass shooting who were in need of surgery.

For the next 12 hours, helping those patients was her focus, and she worked in the OR until 7:30 on the evening of October 2. 

“I would say a big part of training in orthopaedic surgery is ... you kind of learn to be the calmest person in the room,” Dr. Kingsberg said. “My training taught me to be calm. People were commenting that I was really calm and unfazed.”

As she reflects on what she experienced – everything she saw and everything she heard – that night, Dr. Kingsberg said she is still trying to process it all. She worked several days in a row after that night. The mass shooting, she said, has been the dominant topic of conversation among many at Sunrise Hospital.

“I feel like I haven’t slept in a week, honestly,” she said recently.

Even more, Dr. Kingsberg said she is coming to terms with the reality that the mass shooting occurred in the city that, for now, she calls home. She had friends who attended the concert the night of the shooting, she said, who, fortunately, escaped harm. Still, she worries about what the future might bring.

“I guess now that it has happened, I know it’s possible and I know it could happen again, and that’s what I’m afraid of,” she said. “It was just so easy. There were people there just having fun and it was all just ruined.”

Still, Dr. Kingsberg said she is buoyed by the work she and others did that night to help the victims of the shooting. In the midst of the chaos and fear that were evident in the ER, she said she takes pride in how “the whole hospital worked together to make things happen.”