Terror in Brussels: How Belgium's hospitals are treating hundreds after suicide bombings

'All patients are equal'

At least 15 hospitals in Belgium acted quickly to implement their emergency response plans after Tuesday's bombings of Brussels Airport and a busy subway station near the headquarters of the European Union.  

Details of the attacks

Authorities believe two men detonated suicide bombs in a departure hall in Brussels Airport at about 8 a.m. local time Tuesday. Approximately one hour later, officials say, another man detonated a suicide bomb in Maelbeek subway station in downtown Brussels.  As of Wednesday morning, CNN reports that the attacks have killed more than 30 people and wounded about 270 more.

Authorities suspect that Khalid el-Bakraoui carried out a suicide bombing at the subway station, while his brother Ibrahim carried out a suicide bombing at the airport. As of Wednesday morning, the search was ongoing for a third man seen on airport security footage leaving a bomb that did not detonate.

The terrorist group ISIS has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Hospitals are prepared

Hospitals reacted quickly as news of the blast spread throughout Belgium on Tuesday morning. "Within a few minutes or maximum an hour we [were] able to prepare this hospital to free up as much as possible the emergency service, free up as much possible intensive care and to be sure that we have enough operating rooms to treat all the victims," says Renaud Mazy, the top official at Saint Luc Hospital.

According to Belgian Health Minister Maggie De Block, 15 hospitals across the country were treating victims from the attacks. The Hospital Gasthuisberg reported a range of serious injuries, such as deep cuts, burns, and fractures. Reports suggest the bombs were filled with shrapnel—such as nails and bolts—and eyewitnesses recounted seeing body parts in the aftermath of the explosions.

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The Belgian Red Cross requested that people with O and A negative blood types donate to their local donation centers. Security was also an immediate concern. A bomb alert was issued at Saint-Pierre University Hospital around 2 p.m. local time, although it was lifted soon afterward. And Saint Luc began using body scanners to screen individuals entering the hospital as heavily armed security personnel stood guard outside.

Inside, providers worked to stay focused on treating patients, approximately 100 of whom were crowded into the ED soon after the attacks. "Everything smells like blood," Tshimbalanga Maguy, a nurse at the hospital, told Politico.

Reports of injuries painted a disturbing picture, including lost limbs and injured children.

The University Hospital of Brussels admitted eight patients from the blast, one of whom later died. Others were either discharged or admitted to the ICU. Florence Seyf, an official with Clinique Saint Jean, says the hospital moved some children to specialized hospitals to treat their burns.

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Hospitals also worked to monitor the mental wellbeing of first responders and other providers, referring them to the "psycho-team" in some cases, says Jean-Louis Vanoverschelde, a cardiologist at Saint- Pierre. "You're not used to seeing people completely blown up, even if you are a professional," he says. The hospital was also making psychological support available to victims and families.

Treating every patient

Just days ago, Saint-Pierre's staff was called upon to treat Salah Abdeslam, who is suspected to have been involved in the Paris attacks last fall. He was apprehended last week and taken to the hospital for treatment of injuries sustained during the raid by security forces.

A spokesperson for the hospital tells STAT News that, although the tragedy in Brussels in "personal," staffers are focused on doing their jobs, no matter whom they are treating. "All patients are equal" (Paun et al., Politico, 3/23; Schreuer et al., New York Times, 3/23; De Freytas-Tamura/Rubin, New York Times, 3/23; Simon, AFP/Yahoo News, 3/22; Vinograd et al., NBC News, 3/22; Lam, Washington Post, 3/22; Robbins, STAT News, 3/22; Sputnik, 3/23; New York Times, 3/22; Botelho/Berlinger, CNN, 3/23; Botelho/ Cruickshank, CNN, 3/19; Mortimer, Independent, 3/22).

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