It was supposed to be a terrible accident - one involving a lot of people and one that would allow the Prince George's County fire and emergency rescue squads, ambulance drivers and hospitals to test their disaster plans. In this case, a boiler at William Wirt Junior High School would explode, causing a wall of the gymnasium to collapse onto 75 people watching a basketball game.
Except, of course, none of it really happened.
Instead, the scene at Wirt last Thursday night reminded one more of backstage at the dress rehearsal of "Dracula Meets Godzilla." Nurses, rescue squad volunteers, and hospital administrators smeared theatrical makeup, wax and black powder into bizarre and often sickening creations. The finsihed "victims" carried their burns, lacerations and puncture wounds around like special Christmas toys, to be admired, poked at and critiqued.
The volunteers - members of the Civil Air Patrol and Prince George's Community College Student Nursing classes - were joined by this reporter, who wandered around with the rest of the victims, showing off her "laceration and burn of the left forearm, smoke inhalation."
"My blood is fading," said one woman. "My wound is peeling off," cried another. "For some reason my leg is beginning to feel numb," said a victim with a saucer-sized "burn" on his knee. And more than one person grabbed his stomach and turned away from the sight of a young man with a hole in his chest.
Instructions were pretty loose. Each person wore a tag describing his or her ailment. We were told to start our acts as soon as the ambulances drove up to the hospitals. Sounds easy, we said to ourselves, but that was before the ambulances arrived.
Because of high winds and heavy rain, the intended neighborhood rescue squads were pulled off the drill for real emergencies and new units from all over the county were called in. Members of "our ambulance," the West Lanham Fire and Rescue Squad, thought the call was real until they saw television lights and people standing around drinking Cokes instead of crying out in pain. The crew of three young, slender women became so unnerved by the scene that they dropped one 230-pound chest-wound victim as they lifted him onto a stretcher.
We were being sent to three hospitals - Prince George's General Hospital in Cheverly, Doctors' Hospital in Lanham and Leland Memorial Hospital in Riverdale.It was supposed to be a surprise, but as our ambulance pulled up to Doctor's Hospital about 15 persons were standing outside in the cold rain waiting for us. Later, during our treatment, we were told that they had known all day about the coming disaster.
But we did give them trouble, fake injuries and all. "My baby's coming, my baby's coming. I can't push," cried one young woman as she was helped onto the receiving area in front of the emergency room. She was supposed to be in premature labor from the accident and the "baby," a blue ski parka, was obviously on its way.
Another ambulance companion, the 230-pound guy who had been dropped earier in the everning, was whisked off into the night after appropriate ciries and rattles.
I staggered out, moaned and tried to look stunned and dazed. No one noticed me until I had wandered over to the front door. I was promptly pushed back, then pulled onto a stretcher and wheeled, at top speed, down endless blue-walled corridors to the recovery room.
I was only a third priority, a walking wounded, but because of my smoke inhalation, deserved an oxygen mask. Then the doctor demanded an I-V (intravenous) solution and told the nurses to clean my wound and take a chest x-ray.
Another nurse started checking my vital signs - blood pressure and temperature - and comforted me while they were getting statistical information. I couldn't figure out how to talk while wearing an oxygen mask, so I ignored the problem.
County health and hospital officials say the drills were successful, even though many on the staff of at least one hospital were prematurely alerted. But one physician, who obviously takes his job seriously, got a ticket speeding down the Baltimore-Washington Parkway as he drove back to P.G. General Hospital for what he thought was a real emergency. A critique of all the procedures is scheduled next Monday to determine if any clinical errors occured.
I just know that the friendly folks at Doctors' seemed to have my best interests in mind when they tried to fix me up. But a few things worried me. The doctor, a rather blaise young man, didn't take the time to even pretend to sew up the rather obnoxious three inch hole on my arm as part of his routine.
And as my nurse was washing my wound, wiping it clean of fake blood and makeup, she failed to notice the first-degree burn. With expert efficiency she bandaged my arm and firmly applied surgical tape on the reddened flesh of my burn.
Oh, well, it was only a test.