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Updated: Tuesday, 31 Jul 2012, 7:09 AM CDT
Published : Monday, 30 Jul 2012, 4:32 PM CDT
AUSTIN (KXAN) - Had it not been for a bad case of gender discrimination, Paul Bass would have been nowhere near Brackenridge Hospital on the day hell itself descended on Austin, Texas.
In the early 1960s, Bass followed his future wife to Austin and earned a junior college degree in nursing. That allowed him to work in state schools and a state psychiatric hospital. But not in the larger medical community.
Later, Bass and his wife had a child with spina bifida and that motivated him to study to become a registered nurse. He applied at the Brackenridge School of Nursing , where he ran into the proverbial brick wall.
“I went down and put my application in and they said, in 1964, 'This is an all-girls school; we don't have men here.' And I said, ‘Oh, really?’"
It seems there was a powerful set of traditions arrayed against Bass.
“Orderlies were having to take care of male patients that really nurses should have been taking care of,” he recalled. “But in those days there was a stigma: A female nurse didn't go in and catheterize men or bathe men or do things like that.
But Bass was armed with an important friend.
“I had met a young lady named Luci Johnson at the university. I used to get my hair cut at the Flat Top Shop and that's where her fellows used to get their hair cut, her guards, her Secret Service guys or body guards, whoever Lyndon had watching her, who knows," Bass laughed.
“Anyway, as time went on, Luci said, 'You just hang on. Daddy is working on an anti-discrimination program that's going to take effect in '65. That way, you can go to school wherever you want to.
She had tried to get into school, too,” Bass went on. “She was married then to Pat Nugent and she couldn't get in because she was married, so she had a little empathy with me.
So, in 1965, Bass tried again, and again he was stymied.
“I can remember the old director of nursing saying, 'Well, the City Charter says that we only allow ladies in this school.'
“I said, 'Well, you better change that.' And the next thing I knew I got a little letter saying, 'You can apply if you meet the qualifications.' So I applied.
Amazingly, the “good-ol'-girl” network still wasn’t through.
“Then they said, 'Well, room and board is this and then there's tuition and meals.'
“I said, 'Well, I'm married and I've got a kid and a wife.'
“And they said, 'Well, you've just got to be treated like everybody else.' And I said, 'OK, whatever you say.' So I paid for room and board while living at home, but at least I was going to nursing school.”
That’s how it came to pass that Paul Bass was on duty in the Brackenridge emergency room at 12 minutes past noon, when the first of what would become dozens of funeral home hearses, pressed into service as ambulances arrived.
“I was doing an ER rotation,” said Bass. “And I remember vividly all the guys coming in in their hearses. They put a stretcher in the back of it and that's what they brought patients to the emergency room with.”
At 73, Bass is still nursing, heading up the nursing staff for the Seton Heart Institute ’s 22 clinics.
Over at what is now known as University Medical Center Brackenridge , Steve Taylor, a member of the communications staff, studies the events of that blisteringly hot August day.
“They were arriving about one body every two minutes for the first hour,” said Taylor. “They kind of just came like a herd of cats,”, “unorganized, and they brought all the bodies to Brackenridge Hospital that day. They were arriving about one body every two minutes for the first hour.”
“All of a sudden we were getting all of these stretchers,” Bass said, “folks walking into the emergency room saying, 'Where do I put this patient, where do I put that patient?'
The Quiet Ones
“Some of them were moaning and groaning and some of them were obviously not saying a word. It was a little bit disconcerting because you obviously couldn't put the guy who was not saying anything and was obviously dead in the same room with the guy that you've got to take care of.
“I remember that pretty quick they set up a little room down the hallway as kind of our staging area for the morgue. We put our folks in there that were deceased when they came in.
But even with the dead moved out of the way, the chaos remained.
“You don't have enough exam tables so you're having to take care of people the best you can on the stretcher or on the floor,” Bass said.
“It was kind of fly by the seat of your pants,” Taylor added. “You had to, you know, you were thinking about what you had to do; then people had to kind of take charge; people had to assume roles. It was all organized kind of on the fly.”
The available staff was nowhere near enough to handle what was coming in the door. There was also a terrible space issue.
“Remember in those days we didn't have a large ER,” Bass remembered. “I think we had three rooms, and (we) had one that we called (the) trauma room, but (it) had
two beds in it and had a curtain in between. And so we just had folks scattered all over the place.
Soon, though, some help arrived.
“You had to count on a lot of people dropping what they were doing and volunteering, Taylor said. “We had doctors who came in to Brackenridge that day when they heard about the shooting and just volunteered to help out.”
In the midst of all the chaos, the hours slipped by.
“I remember I worked all that day and all that night and the next day and the next night,” Bass said.
The nurse pressed on, fortified by coffee, pie and occasional ten-minute power naps.
“I was a student nurse,” he said. “I was to just to transport patients or to be a stretcher-bearer or whatever we needed to do. If we needed to go get instruments or supplies or whatever we needed. The students, that's what we did in those days.
“At times you'd have to hold a sponge on somebody that was bleeding; you did whatever you were told to do. You didn't make any decisions on your own.
“If an intern or another nurse told you to hold this arm or hold this leg, you know, or give this injection to the patient on the third stretcher, you'd go do it. You didn't ask any questions.”
The visuals, of course, were horrific, but it was the sounds that got to Bass.
“You can still remember,” he said, “hearing those folks and thinking, 'What do I do next?' Hearing somebody saying, 'Help me, help me,' you know, 'please take care of me.'
In all, Whitman killed 14 people from his tower perch and wounded 32. One of the wounded died in 2001 from complications from his injuries. Whitman also murdered his wife and his mother prior to the tower shootings.
Today UMC Brackenridge, as an institution, has largely moved on. But deep within its archive, there are reminders.
For one thing, down in the basement, the Korean war-era stretchers used to transport Whitman’s victims are still in storage, stacked up on wheeled cart, ready to be pressed back into action.
There are also a handful of photographs, including one taken inside the ER in which Paul Bass is clearly visible.
Then, there is the long lost plaque. Not long ago, a researcher moving an old desk in the archive room found it, scratched and chipped, in a drawer.
Presented by the Austin Police Department to Brackenridge Hospital, the plaque recognizes the, “Outstanding Services rendered by employees during the University Tower incident, Aug. 1, 1966.”
At 10 a.m. Wednesday -- the 46th anniversary of the shootings -- in the hospital’s new Tranquility Garden, police department brass will join other city and state officials in presenting the plaque again, this time, framed with an iconic 1966 photograph of a man stacking up the accumulating stretchers.
They will undoubtedly talk about the changes that have taken place over the past 46 years.
“That event was the precursor for building the current trauma care system that we have today,” Taylor said.
“There was nothing like that in 1966. There was no EMS service; the police did not have a SWAT team; they didn't have any weapons to actually reach the top of the tower. Everybody was generally unprepared.
“(Now) we have a great EMS system in place with trained professionals and at Brackenridge, at University Medical Center Brackenridge, you have a level one trauma care system, the only level one trauma care system for adults. The other one is Dell Children's for children.”
So ironically, it was the tragic events of Aug. 1, 1966, events that killed and wounded so many people, that led to a system that now can save so many more than ever before.
“Of course, you have modern communication,” said Taylor, “so you can bring people in. People are trained better; you can bring people in in an organized fashion.
“If something like this were to happen today, the police would be very well organized around that kind of situation. EMS and all of the ambulances would be organized appropriately. You'd get people out faster; there would be more advance warnings to the hospital.
“I know at UMC Brackenridge,” Taylor noted, “we have people on call and we can get surgeons and nurses and other clinicians to the hospital within minutes and have everybody ready and waiting and have a process in place to handle everybody quickly and at once.
“Even something as simple as a balcony collapsing and having a lot of injuries or having a multi-car traffic accident on I-35, those kinds of things could have resulted in deaths before and they don't result in deaths now.
“Things changed from that incident; that opened up a lot of eyes; made people in Central Texas look at, 'What are we going to do to make sure that something like this, if it happens again, the damage in lost lives does not occur again.”
Still, every time another deranged person opens up an arsenal on multiple unsuspecting and innocent people, Paul Bass pauses. He moved on quickly after Whitman. After all, he had a wife and child to
support and a nursing degree to complete.
But now when shots ring out at Columbine or Virginia Tech or Phoenix, the memories of a young nursing student fill Bass’s mind.
And when the once unthinkable happened again in Aurora, Colorado, this month, the nurse once again found himself a young man in a white uniform standing in the midst of anguish and death.
“I could see the guys bringing those folks in in their hearses,” he said, “and I could remember standing out on Sabine Street. That's where the emergency room entrance was. And I thought about all those, the city health department right across the street, the nursing school right across the street.
“And I could see those things, the cars lined up and the police cars lined up and the kind of chaotic scene running through my mind.”
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