We Tried It: Crisis Acting

Emma Frankart Henterly

On an early April morning, Grove City Church of the Nazarene is packed with hundreds of casualties. I’m sporting a gunshot wound to my upper right chest next to a woman whose compound fracture pokes through the skin of her forearm. Others laugh and compare the severity of their injuries.

“Come get your cups of blood!”

“I lost my bullet hole.”

“Has anyone seen the bag of bones?”

This isn’t a set for Grey’s Anatomy; it’s the annual Central Ohio Regional Healthcare Emergency Preparedness Coalition Full-Scale Exercise, coordinated by the Central Ohio Trauma System for hospitals and other agencies.

“Any health care organization that gets money from Medicare or Medicaid ... has to have emergency plans, and they have to practice those plans once a year,” says Mary Ann Janning, volunteer coordinator for Franklin County Public Health’s Medical Reserve Corps, which helps organize the drill. It’s a massive undertaking.

After hospitals determine how many actors they want to take on, Janning and her team solicit volunteers from more than 100 organizations. Many are medical students from nearby colleges. One tells me it helps her understand the patient experience in a way that no textbook could. The drill scenarios vary annually, and this year it’s a Downtown protest-turned-riot, with about 350 injured actors.

When volunteers arrive at the church’s staging area, each of us receives a lanyard strung with cards detailing our affliction, acting notes and vital statistics. After receiving my injury makeup, or moulage, I board one of the buses that will take me and several dozen wounded colleagues to OSU Wexner Medical Center’s East Hospital.

When it’s my turn for triage at OSU East, emergency room staff read the information on my card to get my vitals. They mime giving me a needle decompression—“Ow!” I say. The nurse laughs. “Yeah, ow,” he says. “That’s not a fun one.” After they leave me alone in my ER bed, I glance up to see a woman missing half her cheek trailing after nurses to her room. I feign unconsciousness and take a bloody selfie, posting it to Facebook with a giggle.

There are 60 of us at OSU East, with injuries ranging from slight contusions to mortal wounds. The mild injuries are sent to a nearby outpatient care center; moderate wounds line the hallways, waiting for X-rays or MRI scans. Private rooms are filled with those like me and the missing-cheek woman.

Meanwhile, the hospital is still operational. At one point, a staff member strides down the hall, calling out, “We have a real-world patient here! Make way, clear room 23 for a real-world patient!” We must look terrifying to that poor person. In fact, some organizations opt to use “paper patients” instead of moulaged actors to reduce stress on actual patients.

Eventually, I’m ushered out of my ER bed. I think I’ve been taken into surgery, but it’s equally likely that I’ve died; the first doctor who spoke to me actually asked, “Are you sure you’re supposed to be alive right now?” When all the victims have been processed and have finished the provided lunch, we board the bus back to the church. All told, the exercise takes about six hours.

“If you’re looking for something fun to do that would actually help our health systems prepare for an emergency,” Janning says, “come do this.”


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