Former Army surgeon helped save lives in Las Vegas

by Pamela Kulokas
U.S. Army

OLYMPIA, Wash. -- Doctor James "Jim" Sebesta has saved countless lives during his 25-year career as an Army trauma surgeon. But on Sunday, Oct. 1, he found himself without supplies, surrounded by a sea of people mowed down by gunman Stephen Paddock at the Route 91 Harvest Festival in Las Vegas.

"I've been in a lot of bad places in my career and seen lots of (mass casualties), but in the Army we were ready for them," Sebesta said. "And the other thing is there was a reason for it -- it was war. This was the most devastating thing I've ever seen. I could not believe it. It took me a long time when we started hearing the shots because I just could not believe that somebody would do this."

Sebesta said he and his wife saw the muzzle flashes coming from the 32nd floor of the Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino, where the sniper used 23 guns to terrorize innocent concert-goers in the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history.

When the onslaught finally stopped, more than 500 people were wounded, and scores were dying in front of the concert stage. Sebesta, his wife and friends, who were hunkered down in the VIP tent, had somehow survived the violence, but they feared the gunfire would start again any moment, Sebesta said.

They made the decision to pick themselves up and get out of there.

"As I ran, I looked out over the field and saw multiple people out there -- people doing CPR, people trying to carry people -- and I just ... I couldn't not go help them," Sebesta said.

Knowing every second is crucial to a gunshot victim, Sebesta made the call to run toward danger instead of away from it. He asked his friends to take his wife to safety, then turned, jumped over the fence and headed back.

There were skilled medical providers all over the place, Sebesta said -- nurses, emergency medical technicians and even a few doctors. Sebesta retired as a colonel from Madigan Army Medical Center in 2016 and now works for the MultiCare Health System as a bariatric and general surgeon.

Despite his training and experience, Sebesta had no medical equipment or supplies of any kind with him at the time. He saw a man, shot in the back -- his son plugging the bullet hole with his fingers. Another, a girl, was shot through the neck and needed to establish an airway that Sebesta knew would not arrive soon enough.

Twenty-two thousand people had attended the concert, and all of them needed to get off the field and out of the line of fire.

"We knew that we had to get them somewhere where they had medical supplies," Sebesta said.

The mission became less about lifesaving measures and more about evacuating, he said. From person to person, Sebesta went to help, tearing down fencing for a makeshift gurney to carry people about 40 yards from the front of the stage to the nearby House of Blues, where they could be loaded into vehicles.

"It's all a blur," he said. "You were just running as fast as you can, and grabbing somebody and going back and grabbing somebody else."

Sebesta's friend, Stephen Williams of Edmonds, Wash., was right on his tail. Many others also helped evacuate victims.

"We did everything we possibly could just to comfort people," Williams said. "We were stepping in and around many bodies, wounded and otherwise, just trying to do whatever we could to help. Like Jim said, there are no heroes per se, there were just a lot of willing people that I saw trying to help others survive."

Sebesta doesn't like the word hero, he said, pointing out the others who also answered the call.

"Everybody that was on that field, whether they were skilled or not, helped carry somebody off that field who probably lived," Sebesta said.

Tragically, not everyone was as fortunate. Among the 58 people killed in the attack was a person with ties to Joint Base Lewis-McChord. Denise Burditus, who helped launch the Association of the United States Army, Captain Meriwether Lewis subchapter in Lacey, was killed in the shooting Sunday. According to the Lacey subchapter, Denise died in the arms of her husband, Tony Burditus, who retired from 1st Special Forces Group, at JBLM, just a year ago.

Hours later, Sebesta was able to reunite with his wife. The two traveled home to Olympia, and Sebesta recently resumed his work as a surgeon. In the days since, he said there have been a lot of emotions and a few tears when he sees his children.

Sebesta said he is taking time to heal by talking with his wife and friends who were there that night. Instead of focusing on his own actions or the horror of what he saw, he's choosing to remember everyone who put their lives on the line for others, he said.

"The way everybody came together and helped each other -- it wasn't about who was a doctor or who was a nurse; it was about what we had to do to get people out of there," he said. "That gives me hope that we'll move past this and keep on going."

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