23.10.2021

Junior doctors recall harrowing aftermath of Manchester bombing

A group of junior doctors who were among the first medics on the scene at the Manchester Arena bombing a year ago have said they think about the victims they treated that night every day.

Vicky Wijeratne, David Dolan and Matthew Burrows all attended the Ariana Grande concert at Manchester Arena on the evening of 22 May 2017. As they were waiting to leave the building, they heard a bang as Salman Abedi detonated an improvised bomb at 10.31pm.

They had not been worried until they began to see people with injuries. “We asked one officer if there was anything we could do and I remember her exact words,” said Burrows, 25. “She said: ‘I need to tell you that there has been an explosion and there have been fatalities and if you go back in it’s at your own risk. We have not secured the area.’”

The three doctors, who are in their second and third years of training, were led by the officer to a makeshift treatment area where injured people were being taken and they stayed there helping until about 3.30am.

The group recalled how the injured were carried on stretchers fashioned from pieces of carpet and tarpaulin banners. A merchandise seller brought them T-shirts to use as bandages.

The doctors mainly treated people for fractures and shrapnel injuries, working to stem bleeding. “I remember thinking: how can there be so many different injuries? What exactly has happened?” said Burrows.

“We’ve been talking recently about the people who were hurt in the attack and how we don’t have any contact with those people,” he said. “We’ve not seen any of them since and I don’t know whether they would remember us, but we wanted to use this interview as an indirect way of contacting them and saying: we still think of you every single day.”

The three junior doctors scoured the papers following the bombing to try to find out what had happened to those they treated. “There was a period immediately afterwards where the number of deaths was going up and you kept on thinking about the people you saw who were really poorly,” said Wijeratne, 26.

In March, a report by Bob Kerslake into the emergency response to the attack found that the fire service played “no meaningful role” as firefighters were prevented from attending the arena over concerns the attack was ongoing.

“There are clearly things to be learned from the response to the attack and there was clearly an access issue, but it was a new situation that people hadn’t had to deal with before,” said Wijeratne.

“At a bigger organisational level it didn’t necessarily work as well as it could have done, but the other side of it is that on an individual level people did well above anything you could have expected.”

The trio paid tribute to the arena staff and stewards, the first aid professionals staffing the concert, and bystanders, all of whom worked tirelessly throughout the night to help people.

The doctors said they had a greater appreciation for the police after the attack. “They were doing anything they could to help treat people and asking us to tell them what to do,” said Wijeratne. “I remember one officer who said he was in his first week,” said Burrows.

The doctors spoke of finding themselves in a position for the first time where they could not turn to a more senior colleague for advice. “It was hard because in a hospital environment you can always ask someone for help,” said Dolan, 26. “But in this situation you would get to a certain point and then just think: I don’t know what else I can do now.”

Manchester Arena bombing report: the key points

Junior doctors recall harrowing aftermath of Manchester bombing

• The Greater Manchester fire and rescue service did not arrive at the scene and therefore played “no meaningful role” in the response to the attack for nearly two hours.

•  A “catastrophic failure” by Vodafone seriously hampered the set-up of a casualty bureau to collate information on the missing and injured, causing significant distress to families as they searched for loved ones and overwhelming call handlers at Greater Manchester police.

•  Complaints about the media include photographers who took pictures of bereaved relatives through a window as the death of their loved ones was being confirmed, and a reporter who passed biscuit tin up to a hospital ward containing a note offering £2,000 for information about the injured.

•  A shortage of stretchers and first aid kits led to casualties being carried out of the Arena on advertising boards and railings.

•  Armed police patrolling the building dropped off their own first aid kits as they secured the area.

•  Children affected by the attack had to wait eight months for mental health support.

Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP
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They said it did not feel like a whole year had passed. Instead of attending one of the official events to mark the anniversary on Tuesday, the group are going out for a quiet dinner.

Burrows is from Manchester, and Wijeratne and Dolan have lived there for about eight years. They agree the bombing has sharpened the city’s sense of identity. “It definitely brought the city together,” said Dolan. “It wasn’t like I didn’t love Manchester before, but the response has made me love it even more.”

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