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Doctor puts his own life at risk to save others during Las Vegas shooting

Posted on Oct. 5, 2017 ( comments)
James Sebesta, MD, retired Army colonel and now a surgeon with the MultiCare Center for Wellness & Weight Loss, right, speaks to media Wednesday with fellow concert-goer Stephen Williams about their experience helping victims of the shooting in Las Vegas Oct. 1.

With four combat tours as an Army trauma surgeon, Jim Sebesta, MD, has seen mass casualty situations. Unfortunately, the worst one he ever experienced wasn’t in war, but at a concert in Las Vegas during a tragic mass shooting that left 58 dead and 489 injured on the night of Oct. 1.

“This was the most devastating thing that I have ever seen, and I couldn’t believe it,” says Dr. Sebesta, a retired Army colonel and now a surgeon with the MultiCare Center for Wellness & Weight Loss. “It took me a long time to believe that this was real when we started hearing the shots.”

Dr. Sebesta and his wife Janelle were attending the Route 91 country music festival for the third year, along with friends. They were in a covered area when the shooting began, and once it stopped, they knew that they had to get out of the area immediately.

Dr. Sebesta’s first instinct was to make sure his wife was safe and get her out of the chaos, but he also felt obligated to go back into the area and provide what assistance he could.

“I looked out on the field and saw multiple people out there doing CPR, trying to carry people, and I couldn’t not go help them,” he says. “I told my friends to take my wife out of there and keep her safe.”

Fellow concert-goer Stephen Williams of Edmonds, went back into the danger with Dr. Sebesta. The two had struck up a friendship over the weekend, after being seated near one another during the previous nights’ concerts. At the time, there was no way to tell what would happen next.

“I knew what we had to do, to get them out of the line of fire, because we didn’t know if he was going to start shooting again,” Dr. Sebesta says. “We had to get them to somewhere they could get moving. We would load people into trucks and send them to the hospital.”

With no equipment, the two improvised with available materials, tearing down fencing to use as a makeshift gurney and using it to carry shooting victims 30 to 40 yards out of the area and into cover at the House of Blues.

Dr. Sebesta and Williams were eventually separated after a few trips; neither one recalls exactly how many trips they made.

“It’s all a blur. You were running as fast as you can, grabbing somebody and moving them out and then going back in,” Dr. Sebesta says. “We knew we had to get them somewhere that there were medical supplies.”

One thing that sticks with both men is the humanity they witnessed in the face of such an inhumane act. From evacuating the wounded at the scene of the shooting, to providing improvised medical support, to people lending their vehicles to transport injured from the concert to local hospitals, Dr. Sebesta says “this story is about everybody that helped on the field that day. I think everybody that was on that field, whether they were skilled or not, helped carry somebody off.”

Williams adds “I think for me it’s about seeing the people help and putting their lives on the line for others. That gives me hope that there are people you can count on.”

Dr. Sebesta retired from the Army at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in 2016. Williams is in the digital marketing and advertising sector, with no first responder or medical training.

As they move forward, both know that there will be a period of healing and readjustment as they return to their normal lives.

“I have lots of very good friends who are very supportive in talking about it. My wife and I were both in this together so we can express how we feel,” Dr. Sebesta says. “The way everybody came together and helped each other gives me hope that we’ll move past this and keep on going.”

“We’re not going to change the way we live based on one individual’s actions, regardless of how horrific the outcome was,” Williams says.

More media coverage

Retired JBLM surgeon helped victims during Las Vegas shooting (KING 5)

Tacoma doctor among Vegas first responders (KOMO News)

Tacoma doctor told wife to run while he stayed to help Las Vegas victims (KIRO 7)

As bullets flew in Las Vegas, Tacoma surgeon improvised to help victims (Seattle Times)

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