As gunshots and cries for help rang through the halls of Bronx-Lebanon Hospital Center last Friday, nurses whispered reassuring messages to distressed patients.
Surgeons in the middle of operating kept their composure, despite hearing a “Code Silver” alert play over the hospital’s intercom system, warning them of a shooter in the building.
Medical assistants rushed to aid the injured even as the identity and whereabouts of the shooter still were unknown.
Three days after Dr. Henry Bello set off on a suicidal shooting spree that killed Dr. Tracy Sin-Yee Tam, 32, and injured six others, Bronx-Lebanon workers gathered at a news conference Monday to recount their experiences.
“Babies were delivered . . . surgeries continued,” said hospital spokesman Errol Schneer, crediting routine emergency drills at the hospital with helping to prevent what could have been a more deadly scene.
On the 16th floor, where Bello first opened fire, nurse Donna Lee Peterkin, was finishing up with an elderly patient suffering from pneumonia. Peterkin heard the “Pop Pop Pop” sound of gun shots. Peterkin said she dove immediately to be near the patient’s bed.
The gunshots “were so close and so loud, that I really thought that whoever it is out there, was going to come inside the room,” said Peterkin, who has worked at the hospital for 25 years.
Despite her own fears — the thought of not seeing her two children ages 12 and 2 again — Peterkin put on a comforting front for the patient, telling her “we’re all in this together.”
“I couldn’t abandon my patient,” Peterkin said. “I was scared, and she was scared, but I had to be brave for her, so that she could see somebody was there for her.”
Armed NYPD officers soon arrived. They told Peterkin and her patient to remain in the room for safety, as it was unclear if there was more than one shooter involved.
Soon after, smoke entered the room, overwhelming the patient, Peterkin said. Police sources have said Bello, 45, who had a history sexual harassment allegations, tried to set himself on fire using a container of flammable liquid, before shooting himself in the chest.
Peterkin went into the hallway in search of an oxygen tank for the patient. She said an officer attempted to stop her, but replied “the patient can’t breathe,” and she finally was able to get aid for the women.
“I was scared walking through the door this morning, but I had to see my colleagues and those who got hurt,” Peterkin said Monday. “I think healing becomes much easier when you heal together.”
On the 12th floor, Kenya Blondell, a medical assistant, heard the cries of a doctor pleading for help — “I’ve been shot! I’ve been shot! Save my hand! Save my hand!”
Blondell, who has worked at the hospital for 11 years, said the doctor, a gastroenterologist, had rushed down the stairs from the 16th floor where he had been shot in the hand. She applied pressure on his hand to stem the bleeding. Other doctors and nurses arrived soon.
“It was like something out of a horror movie, there was blood everywhere,” Blondell said, “But we decided that didn’t matter. Let’s just save him.”
Elevators had been shut off in response to the shooting, forcing several workers to carry the doctor down a stairwell, as Blondell and others continued to apply pressure to his hand. His bleeding was so severe, that they decided there wasn’t time to make it to the first floor emergency room. They carried him to a third floor operating room instead.
“There was no time to think, it was just quick survival mode,” Blondell said.
Medical staff tended to the wounded doctor, although it was unclear if a shooter was at-large, Blondell said.
“What kept me going is hearing him say ‘Save my hand! Save my hand!’ As a doctor that is the most vital part,” Blondell said.
Blondell said she was hopeful the doctor will regain full use of his hand.
On the 3rd floor, operating room nurse Amy Vargas and a team of doctors were nearing the end of a surgery, when SWAT team officers entered the room to make sure no one was in danger.
The armed security presence was a relief to Vargas, who said her priority was ensuring the safety of the patient on the operating table.
“I had to stay with my patient to make sure they were safe,” Vargas said.
Vargas said she sought to bring a sense of calm to those around her by not showing signs of fear.
“Mentally, you have to talk yourself through it,” Vargas said.
Dr. Sridhar Chilimuri, the hospital’s physician-in-chief, said at least once a month, hospital staff undergo emergency drills to practice for high pressure situations, including active shooter scenarios.
Even so, hospital staff “were never prepared for SWAT teams in our operating rooms,” Chilimuri said.
He credited hospital workers with evacuating more than 500 patients from the hospital, and maintaining order.
“Timely action is what saved lives that day,” Chilimuri said.
The sole fatality was Dr. Sin-Yee Tam. On Monday, Chilimuri recalled her at the news conference as “a young idealistic physician” whose mission was to provide care for underserved communities.
“We feel that is the reason she decided to come to Bronx-Lebanon,” Chilimuri said.
He called her the type of doctor who always said “yes” when asked for a favor. That included working last Friday, when she was scheduled to be off, to substitute for a colleague.
Patricia Cahill, chief nursing officer for the hospital said despite the “sadness” that has overcome many at the hospital “we’re on the road to recovery.”
A candlelight vigil is scheduled to take place at the hospital Thursday evening, Schneer said.