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Nicole Kopari and Melissa Wayne sitting on a bench outside

Nicole Kopari (left) and Melissa Wayne caught a ride from fellow medical student Heather Nelson on August 1 and helped victims at the scene of the I-35W bridge collapse.

University medical, dental students help victims after bridge collapse

By Sara Buss

From eNews, August 16, 2007

Editor's note: If you're looking for a way to help or pay tribute to victims of the recent I-35 bridge collapse, check out "Final Ride Home," a song composed by recent University of Minnesota graduate Phil Thompson. You can download it from iTunes and CD Baby for 99 cents. Thompson's goal is to raise $1 million. All proceeds will be donated to the Twin Cities chapter of the American Red Cross.

Fourth year medical student Heather Nelson, barely two weeks into her emergency room rotation, ended her shift at Hennepin County Medical Center in downtown Minneapolis at 6 p.m., Wednesday, Aug. 1.

As she left the parking ramp, she heard news of a bridge collapse, but had few details and no idea of the magnitude of the disaster. She soon found herself stuck in traffic near the Metrodome.

Several blocks away, Heather's classmates Melissa Wayne and Nicole Kopari were sitting down to eat a pizza, when Wayne's mother called and told them to turn on the news. When they saw the coverage, thoughts of "should we go" quickly turned to "let's go," and they took off on foot.

More help at hand

"For U professor, bridge collapse hits close to home"
Associate professor Ross Macmillan was one of the first to respond when the bridge fell.

"Four officers were ready to serve"
Many police officers on the Minneapolis scene had put in long hours and needed relief; four off-duty officers from the Duluth campus were ready to serve.

"U of M professor listens, calms victims after bridge collapse"
Although he wasn't in the accident, Tai Mendenhall knows firsthand how painful it was for the victims. The U professor was deployed to the hospital as part of the University's Medical Reserve Corps.

"Morris student aids in bridge rescue"
During the I-35W bridge collapse, UMM senior Isaiah Brokenleg helped to calm the children who were on the school bus.

As they neared the Metrodome, they saw Nelson. The two jumped into her car and began weaving through traffic, stopping to explain to police and fire officials that they were Medical School students trying to get to the scene to help.

"Having that ER experience, I know what needs to be done in the field," Nelson says.

At East River Road, they had to stop and make their way on foot to the edge of the river. Most of the victims were on the opposite bank, and they caught a ride across the river on a rescue boat. The three worked to check pulses, respiration, and cervical spine stability on the people the rescue workers had pulled to safety.

In addition to these basic first aid services, the students spent time comforting and reassuring the victims.

"We had eight to ten patients, one was critically injured," Kopari says.

"We hadn't been hurt, we had services to give," says Wayne. "I just figure, if the situation was reversed, any of those people would have come to help us. That's the way this community is."

One of their peers in the University of Minnesota Dental School, Nathan Lund, responded to the scene as well. His wife--a nurse and 2006 graduate of the U--also lent a hand.

Both helped in whatever form they could. They used first aid on victims, informed doctors about their condition, and flagged down trucks to use as makeshift ambulances.

So, how did a fourth-year dental student know how to help wounded people?

Lund--like all dental school students--took the same anatomy class required of all medical school students at the University.

"Your mind flashes back to the [class]," he says. "You help the victims in whatever way possible."

As time passes, they each have begun to deal with the situation on a more emotional level.

While at the scene, Kopari says she didn't have much time to fully comprehend what had happened. "Then, when things calmed down, I said, 'I think I'm going to cry now.'"

By Thursday, Nelson had already returned to HCMC and participated in the debriefing process. "It was a really impressive response [by emergency and medical personnel]; this is what we're training for," she says. "I found out that some of the patients we helped were doing well."

They all said they wished they could have done more. They don't think they're heroes, and they're not looking for attention. They say they did what they are being trained to do.

"When you're in it, it doesn't cross your mind," Kopari said. "You run to help. You do your job."