By Kirstin Grace-Simons (Madigan Army Medical Center)August 7, 2019
MADIGAN ARMY MEDICAL CENTER, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Wash. -- A trio of staff members once again proved that going above and beyond the call of duty is just another day at Madigan Army Medical Center. On their way home from long shifts, Kassandra Ooms, a certified nursing assistant in the Emergency Medicine, Shawn Janson, a dispatcher in the Communications Center, and Capt. (Dr.) Erica Grimm, a Department of Pediatrics resident, all stopped along the side of the road to aid a Soldier trapped in a burning vehicle.
Though she didn't know it at the time, it was co-worker Janson who Ooms was following out the East Gate. Prior to the Roy Gate, they were flagged down by a couple pulled over at a vehicle on fire.
As both pulled over, Ooms ran through a list of possibilities in her head -- what if the driver needed something she didn't have, or the skill level his injuries required was above hers, or if she'd freeze and not know what to do in the moment.
"There's a moment where, like I said, when that all happened in that one second, you know those thoughts, I had to kind of go, 'OK, either I run towards this car that's on fire or I live with the fact that I watched a man burn because I didn't do anything, if no one else were to help.' That wouldn't sit right with me," said Ooms.
Through years of a career in the military as a tanker, then law enforcement and now as a dispatcher, this was the first time Janson found himself in this sort of life-saving situation.
He ran to the burning vehicle and attempted to get the driver out.
"I was screaming at him, shaking him trying to get him out … nothing," said Janson. The driver's only response was some grunting.
A burst of flame surged up from the engine compartment; that sent Janson twisting away from the heat and falling to the ground. Once he regained his footing, he found a Soldier pulling on the driver's uniform to get him out the window. Janson assisted, relieved his first thought that the flame surge had been the driver himself was wrong.
"We were able to get him out and set him down; that's when the doc came," said Janson.
Instead of the controlled burn she first expected when she saw the smoke, this was the scene Grimm came upon.
"It wasn't a small fire at this point; it was above the roof, like full flames," said Grimm.
She rushed to the scene prepared.
"I ran to the back of my car and threw open my hatchback and grabbed my dog's seat cover thinking that I would have to jump on somebody and put the flames out," she said. It proved a handy makeshift carrier to get the Soldier moved away from his vehicle.
All three agreed that it was just in time too.
"It seemed like seconds after we got him out of the car that it was completely gone," Janson recalled.
Ooms had already tried to assess the driver, but his unconscious state didn't help. Moving him from the vehicle to the ground and then farther away from the burning car started bringing him back to consciousness.
"Someone asked if there was a nurse there. Kassie said she was a nurse and I said I was a doc. We made eye contact and were like, 'OK, alright!' So, we did our quick head to toe assessment. She still had her scissors on from working, so she started cutting (his clothing); she handed them to me, I started cutting. We were looking for anything open, anything bleeding we could pack. He was breathing and had a good pulse," said Grimm.
Concerned about the hot fire and the potential of ammunition within the car, the group moved the Soldier a third time and waited for Madigan's ambulance to arrive. Not without a little more excitement, though.
"He did give us a start when we asked him if there was anyone else in the vehicle with him and he said yes. We all held our breath; then he said no," said Grimm.
With no witness to the initial circumstance that started the fire, Madigan's Good Samaritan responders all expected that the fire may have started after hitting a tree.
"He definitely hit the tree. You can see where the bark is off and the headlight is into the tree. It had to hit really hard," said Janson.
"It's black around the entire area. I would say, maybe eight feet up on the trees. It's pretty burnt up," agreed Ooms.
Bad as the situation was, each was pleased with the way things unfolded.
"I was very thankful that everyone else showed up," said Janson.
He expressed particular appreciation for the civilian couple who arrived first and the Soldier who helped pull the driver from the vehicle. Janson doesn't know that Soldier's name, but he readily notes his contribution.
"I think without him, we wouldn't have made it. It felt like seconds were really important," said Janson.
"It was a great team," agreed Grimm. "It was really awesome to see everyone come together like that."
For Ooms, that teamwork was inspiring.
"The kindness that these people showed just by even stopping and helping was just really refreshing. It was good; it was really nice," she said.
In talking about the incident, Ooms, Janson and Grimm all expressed ongoing interest in the Soldier's recovery. Ooms was able to visit with him in the Intensive Care Unit during her shift the next day. He seemed to be doing well.
Given the intensity of the fire and that those removing the driver did not have a second to spare, Ooms concluded, "It was nothing shy of a miracle that he was OK."