2:49 p.m. – April 15, 2013: Inside a medical tent just 100 yards from the finish line of the Boston Marathon, Michael Emery, M.D., stood with a nurse. They were tending to a runner, who was dehydrated and cramping.
Surrounding Dr. Emery, a sports cardiologist with IU Health, were physical therapists, physicians, massage therapists and nurses.
“We hear this big boom. Twelve seconds later, another big boom.”
The nurse turned to Dr. Emery and asked, “Was that thunder?” There were few clouds in the sky, no threat of bad weather.
“I knew those weren’t normal sounds you would hear. I knew something wasn’t right.”
Dr. Emery texted his wife, Amy: “I’m fine.” He didn’t know, really, whether he would be fine. He didn’t know what had happened.
“But I had suspicions something bad had happened.”
A voice came over the intercom telling the crew to stay in their stations. About that time, someone came into the tent from around the corner with a devastating message.
Those booms they had heard were bombs.
Dr. Emery didn’t know it at the time, but those two homemade bombs that detonated 210 yards apart near the finish line, would end up killing three people and injuring several hundred.
He also didn’t know that, within minutes, he would be called to risk his life to save others.
And Dr. Emery would answer that call – in a major way
ALL PHYSICIANS TO THE FINISH LINE, the voice blared over the intercom.
“All of us took off like a bat out of hell running toward the finish line. And that’s when we started seeing the smoke and the chaos and started smelling it.
But the first image of a person, the first victim that Dr. Emery saw, was a man – with his legs blown off, being lifted into a wheelchair.
That man was Jeff Bauman. A photo of Bauman being wheeled down the streets of Boston, with a man in a cowboy hat pinching his femoral artery, went viral. A movie about Bauman starring Jake Gyllenhaal, called “Stronger,” was released in 2017.
But Dr. Emery didn’t have much time to focus, at first, on what was happening outside. People might still be inside the building, someone yelled, people inside the Marathon Sports store located next to where the bombing occurred.
Dr. Emery ran inside.
“It hit me when I went in. Should I be in the building?”
Dr. Emery searched and yelled out. No answers. He found no one inside the store and so he emerged.
“Back out on the street, it was pure chaos. It was a war zone, literally pools of blood in the sidewalks and streets, and I’m standing in them.
He rushed through the crowd of physicians performing CPR on victims, stopping the bleeding and comforting. Dr. Emery made his way to a victim — to help with an automated external defibrillator.
“The ambulances were trying to load people up. They were trying to clear the scene pretty quickly. They were still worried about another bomb.”
There were thousands of marathoners still running when the bombing occurred. They were diverted to a different route.
Once the finish line scene was cleared, Dr. Emery and other medical volunteers – including his friend, the co-medical director of the marathon who had invited him to be part of the race – wandered Boston. They wanted to make sure those runners weren’t in need of medical care.
It was 6 p.m. when Dr. Emery finally made it back to his hotel room.
“And it didn’t really hit me what had happened until I got to my hotel room and started seeing the TV. What the hell did I just experience?”
Dr. Emery was hungry. It hit him all at once. There was nothing to eat in the hotel. He would have to venture out again.
“Literally, as soon as I closed my hotel door, I had a panic attack. I was in sheer panic mode. I went to Qdoba, got a burrito and was in pure anxiety mode the entire time until I got back.”
When the sun rose the next morning, and in the light of day, Dr. Emery’s panic subsided. He walked the streets of Boston and saw a more settled scene.
There were still armored cars and automatic rifles. The bombers had not been apprehended yet.
Dr. Emery stayed in Boston until Thursday, several days after the tragedy — and then he left Boston behind. At least he tried.
Back at home in South Carolina, where Dr. Emery practiced at the time, he felt alone.
People would ask him if he was OK, but he wasn’t. It was traumatic. He hadn’t gotten to have closure, go to the memorials or get the psychological support other volunteers – still in Boston – had.
“I remember that October, it was Halloween and I was eating breakfast. And a story came on about another volunteer at the marathon that was an athletic trainer. And I just broke down in the middle of breakfast.”
Dr. Emery knew he needed to find a way to heal. He found that healing in a return trip to the Boston Marathon.
“I went back in 2014 because I needed to. And I took my family with me for the emotional support.”
He went to the site and saw the memorial. He got to have fun in the medical tent – to see what it was like to volunteer for the marathon without a tragedy.
And he went back again in 2015 and again in 2017.
“Even today, when I think about that day, it still gets me. It’s not something you ever get over. Or forget.”
— By Dana Benbow, Senior Journalist at IU Health. Reach Benbow via email firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @danabenbow.