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March 13, 2015

Surgeon describes the night the accused Boston bomber became his patient

Daily Briefing

    The Marshall Project this week profiled Stephen Odom, the attending trauma surgeon on call at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center when Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev was admitted after a gun battle with law enforcement.

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    After hearing that Tsarnaev would be coming to Beth Israel for treatment, where some of the victims of the bombings had recently undergone surgeries or amputations, Odom says he remembers feeling anxious about "how to lead a team in the midst of all that chaos" and whether Tsarnaev might come "armed or wired in some way."

    Odom says the hospital—being one of five Level 1 trauma centers in the Boston area—was used to treating "the bad guy" in trauma instances; that can include taking care of drunk drivers as well as to their victims. But treating Tsarnaev was unlike anything he had ever seen before, he says. "I think everybody deserves world-class care. What would the alternative be?" Odom says.

    Moreover, the hospital was crowded with "hundreds of police officers and FBI... [and] a pretty heavy presence of armed people with visible weapons," Odom recounts, adding, "That's not something you usually see in a hospital or an operating room."

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    Operating on an alleged perpetrator

    While the officers instructed Odom to do everything he could to get Tsarnaev to talk, Odom notes, "There were some decisions we had to the [OR] that wouldn't necessarily be compatible with a quick interview."

    Odom says the key to operating on Tsarnaev—who arrived with multiple gunshot wounds—was to "emotionally divorce" himself from the surgery and focus as much as possible on the job at-hand. However, he says that operating on Tsarnaev was more difficult than typical surgeries, "not because of who it was," but because "there was constant stress from the administration and news agencies and law enforcement." He adds, "Each party had something they wanted."

    Odom says that the medical staff spoke frequently during that time about how to make the best decisions and not succumb to the various competing pressures. Later, Odom and his team led Tsarnaev's care coordination efforts before he was transferred to the Federal Medical Center in Devens, Massachusetts.

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    The ethics of the situation

    Odom also says that he struggled with how to best ensure that Tsarnaev was safe after surgery while allowing authorities to interrogate him. Odom's team set up a monitoring station in an adjacent room while Tsarnaev was being questioned so that they could get to him "if we saw something on the monitor…  we didn't like."

    "I was unsure about the ethics of that at the time. I was unclear about what the right thing to do was… so that I wasn't necessarily abandoning him to the authorities, but they could get the information they wanted to get," Odom says, adding, "I think we did a pretty good job finding the balance" (Schwartzapfel, The Marshall Project, 3/11).

    More on how hospitals responded to the Boston bombings:

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    1. Current ArticleSurgeon describes the night the accused Boston bomber became his patient

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