Recipe for disaster

December 1, 2011 — Vocations

The first surgeon to treat and diagnose Gabrielle Giffords after the Tucson shooting received her training over a lifetime.

By Dr. Marcie Leeds ’99

Leeds was interviewed by The Daily for a video news segment, “Saving Gabrielle Giffords,” that appeared in May and is available on YouTube.

After a long evening on call, I had just started my morning shift on Jan. 8 in the trauma bay at Tucson’s University Medical Center when a call came in that EMS would be bringing 10 gunshot victims. We didn’t know about the shooting rampage or that our congresswoman, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, was one of the wounded.

As the second-most senior doctor on duty, I stood in the hallway ready to examine the victims as they arrived, and triage them according to severity of their wounds. After what seemed like a lifetime, the first patient, a 9-year-old girl, arrived. EMS was actively doing chest compressions, and my attending physician and the other chief resident on duty rushed to resuscitate her.

EMS rolled the next critically injured patient up to me moments later, a female around 35 with an obvious gunshot wound to the head.

Photos of Rep. Giffords were posted in June (P.K. Weis/AP Photo).

“This is the congresswoman,” yelled the emergency medical technician.

In surgical residency, when we are trained in trauma, we are taught a “recipe” of sorts, a structured way of examining every patient, every time, so that no injuries are missed and details are not overlooked. Although I was stunned by the sudden tragedy I was now part of, the training kicked in.

After running through my trauma protocol, I was able to see that Giffords had no other life-threatening injuries. We proceeded through her neurologic exam, noting the deficits. I quickly notified the attending of my findings and immediately called our neurosurgical team. This last step was probably the most significant thing I was able to do for her that day.

The most amazing part of the whole experience was the response of the other clinical staff and nurses who were not in the hospital at the time. No one waited to get called in. They all drove in from home after learning of the tragedy.

As you can imagine, this vocation takes discipline and professionalism, lessons I learned early. From the ages of 5 to 14, I was a working actress, starring in movies and television shows. Early on, the toughest part was convincing adult casting directors that I understood the craft, that I could portray a character and be a professional at the same time.

The bond I had with those professors is something I will never forget.

Back then, my dad was my manager, my coach and my agent, and he gave me good advice: He always said my acting was a job, not a career.

I worked hard those years both as a student and as an actress, knowing full well that this was the recipe for me to become the surgeon I always dreamt about being. By the time I applied to college, I had a love for science. I initially left my home in Simi Valley to attend a university out of state.

Two years later, my younger brother was accepted to Cal Lutheran University, and he told me about his CLU experiences and what a great school it was. After multiple conversations with him, I made my decision to come back to California to be closer to my family. I was accepted at CLU as a junior biology major.

I loved my experience at CLU so much, the incredible camaraderie. The respect that I had for my professors encouraged me, and I graduated with honors. The bond I had with those professors is something I will never forget. My medical career seemed far away, but they gave me the strong support and the tools I needed to be the doctor I am today.

Marcie Leeds ’99 is in her fourth year of a five-year general surgical residency at University Medical Center in Tucson, Ariz.

Email ideas and submissions for Vocations to