When Natalie Stavas and her father finally reached mile 26, drained but determined to finish, they heard the boom of the explosions and watched as police began erecting barricades to block runners from continuing to the finish line.
Father and daughter, both originally from Nebraska, knew something was terribly wrong; and despite their fatigue, they knew they had to help.
So Natalie Stavas, 32, a 2011 University of Nebraska Medical Center graduate and now a pediatric resident in Boston, leaped over a barricade. Police screamed for her to stop, she says, but she kept running toward Boylston Street. “I yelled at one officer, saying, 'I'm a pediatric doctor. You have to let me through.'”
As depleted as she was after running — with a broken foot — all but the final two-tenths of a mile of the marathon, she sprinted, ignoring the police who couldn't keep up with her. “I was running like a bat out of hell,” she said. “I wasn't aware of my fatigue.”
When she made it to the scene of the second explosion, she found a young woman bleeding profusely from a blown-open thigh. She immediately began pumping the unconscious woman's chest. She showed others how to apply pressure to the woman's legs.
When paramedics took the woman away, Stavas ran about 30 feet down Boylston until she found another young woman lying on her back with a massive hole in her groin. “As soon as I saw the wound,” she said, “I began screaming that this woman needed to be sent to a hospital.”
The woman was shivering, and Stavas borrowed a jacket from someone, which she used to cover the woman's wounds. With the woman stabilized, she got up and ran toward the site of the first explosion to help a man lying on his back with a mangled foot. Someone handed her a tourniquet, and with all her strength, she applied it above his knee.
“I had to apply so much pressure that the man thought he was going to die,” she said. “He was screaming.”
Afterward, she treated a young man whose tibia was protruding through his skin above his ankle.
“I've never seen anything like that before — like a true, utter battle zone,” she said. “I thought, how could someone do this to so many innocent people?”
Meanwhile, her father, Joe Stavas, 58, a radiologist who graduated from Creighton University's medical school and who now works in North Carolina, was helping tend to some of the thousands of runners who were halted at Hereford Street. Many were growing cold quickly after sweating, which can be dangerous for marathon runners.
He found an elderly runner who was ashen, lacked much of a pulse and had passed out. “She was white as a sheet,” he said of the woman. “I knew it was hypothermia.”
He and others bundled her in a coat, hat and blankets from spectators, and they carried her to a nearby restaurant. “We knew it would be impossible for an ambulance to get to her,” he said.
Afterward, he found a young woman who was crying so hard she couldn't speak. Her fingers were so cold she could barely open them. “I saw goose bumps on her face, which is rare,” he said.
He gave her his hat and jacket and his daughter's gloves, which he was holding. Over the next hour, he helped at least a half-dozen people, carrying them to nearby town houses, where residents had opened their doors.
For Natalie Stavas, who has run three previous marathons with her father and seven others, Boston has always been the paramount race, because of the tremendous support from spectators and all the money raised for good causes.
“Everyone is so happy,” she said, “and the crowds are bigger and more enthusiastic than anywhere else. They cheer you on, no matter how you look.”
She and her father scoff at the notion that they are heroes. On the contrary, she said, she feels in some ways guilty for what happened.
“There's a deep sense of grief, because on some fundamental level, those people were there for me,” she said. “You can't help but feel a sense of responsibility for their loss.”
UNMC graduate's mettle was widely known at med center
The idea that Dr. Natalie Stavas would race to help victims of the Boston Marathon bombings was no surprise to University of Nebraska Medical Center faculty members who worked with the 2011 UNMC graduate.
“I would have no doubt that she would get involved in something like that because she cares about people, cares about learning and wants to be the best physician she can be,” said Dr. Gary Beck, director of UNMC's Curriculum & Education Research Office.
“She really took the initiative to get some of the rotations she wanted to get to enhance her learning, which is kind of refreshing to see in a student.”
Stavas grew up in Lincoln. She earned a nursing degree from Creighton University, went to work as a critical-care nurse in San Diego and decided to return to Nebraska to attend medical school at UNMC. Her father and running mate on Monday, Dr. Joe Stavas, earned his medical degree at Creighton and is a radiologist in North Carolina.
Natalie Stavas graduated with high distinction in 2011 and is in her second year of a program called the Boston Combined Residency Program, in which she spends half the time at Children's Hospital in Boston and half the time at Boston Medical Center.
As a student at UNMC, Stavas served as the head of the committee that operates a student-run clinic for medically underserved people in Omaha. Dr. Audrey Paulman, the clinic's faculty adviser, said Stavas was responsible for making sure the clinic was properly staffed and had adequate supplies. Stavas also helped plan an international conference held at UNMC on student-run free clinics.
“Natalie is one of those students that was remarkable in that she had excellent learning skills and she had excellent people skills,” Paulman said.
Med students, Paulman said, take part in a rural medicine program that exposes them to emergency care and, in general, are taught to think on their feet. She said, however, that “there's nothing that I know of that we can teach them to know what to do when a bomb explodes at the end of the Boston Marathon.”
Stavas said the tragedy won't affect her running. “My dad and I are going to run the Boston again next year.” — Bob Glissmann.