442d physician reflects on American tragedy

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jacob Gutierrez
  • 442d Fighter Wing

The inside of the hospital bustled with the sounds of an emergency the night of October 25, 2023. All possible hands were called to respond to a mass casualty event. Doctors and nurses worked tirelessly through extended rounds treating and responding to trauma patients with varying levels of injury. The tension of the unknown hung in the air as they eagerly anticipated more information. The damage inflicted was reminiscent of the aggressive injury of war commonly seen in the battlefield as the smoke settles. However, this was not a triage center on foreign soil. It was a hospital in a quiet small town in America. The victims were neighbors and residents of Lewiston, Maine. Husbands and wives, sons, and daughters.

That night, medical professionals like Maj. (Dr.) Jennifer Waterman, 303d Fighter Squadron flight surgeon, responded to the deadliest mass shooting in state history. An as-yet-unidentified shooter caused the normally sleepy town to erupt in fear that Wednesday evening. Waterman’s pager went off as she was returning home, unaware of the ongoing situation.

“They had no idea what kind of numbers to expect, but if anyone was able and available could they return to the hospital and assist,” said Waterman. “They said there was an active shooter, but details were murky; nobody really knew what was going on.”

Like many traditional reservists, Waterman has two careers. In her civilian role, she is an orthopedic surgeon newly relocated from Kansas to Maine. As a reservist with the 442d, she operates as a flight surgeon primarily, but offers her medical expertise wherever it’s needed across the wing. When she arrived back at the hospital that night in Lewiston, Waterman saw a scene she never expected to see in her civilian life.

“In 2018 in Kandahar, Afghanistan I did a lot of surgeries on troops with horrific injuries,” said Waterman. “It didn’t strike me in the same way because that was an anticipated occurrence. It’s more difficult to compartmentalize when you see someone bleeding out who went bowling for the evening or was participating in a cornhole tournament.”

Despite the ongoing uncertainty, the professionals in the 250-bed hospital worked through the night stabilizing patients and providing care in operating rooms. Waterman advocated that her military experiences provided a level of familiarity her civilian counterparts needed for support.

“The injuries that came in weren’t something you usually see in a civilian hospital. The weapon used in this setting was much more similar to something you would see in a combat zone, far more destructive and there were many people I worked with who had never seen injuries like that,” said Waterman. “I’m trying to find gratitude that I was able to take from my military experiences to bring something to the table and add value to this community.”

The shooting left 18 people dead. Waterman’s hospital saw most of the causalities pass through their ER doors. However, despite the unimaginable horror, she says Lewiston is exhibiting strengths that show human fortitude rises above all odds.

“I’m new to Lewiston, but you can see how everyone is interconnected and there aren’t a lot of degrees of separation,” said Waterman. “It mimics the tight-knit community of the military.”

The healing process will take time. Answers are never easily delivered to the suffering and the “why” may never come. Waterman advocates that in the above all else, we need to remember one another – the neighbor we haven’t spoken to, and the loved one whose call we always seem to miss.

“It’s hitting me a lot harder than I thought it would,” said Waterman. “The best advice I have is to reach out to people on a day-to-day basis and ask the people around you if they’re okay, and if they aren’t okay, talk about it.”