SAN ANTONIO — Sitting in a quiet conference room, away from the chaos of the trauma unit at University Hospital, Dr. Ronald Stewart paused and closed his eyes several times Thursday before choking back tears.
“I feel so bad for those families,” he said, “and guilty, to some degree, that they don’t have their children and I do.”
Stewart, senior trauma surgeon at University Hospital and the father of three adult children, was one of the doctors who treated the victims of Tuesday’s mass shooting at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, where a gunman opened fire with a weapon of war, killing 19 children and two teachers.
From the moment four patients arrived, it was “go time” inside the hospital, said Stewart, who is also chair of the surgery department at UT Health San Antonio.
“We didn’t know how many patients we were going to get,” he said, calling the coordinated response a “symphony of people.”
Victims were also taken to other hospitals, including the Brooke Army Medical Center outside San Antonio, as dozens of first responders mobilized to prepare operating rooms, blood banks and other services.
The coordinated response quickly became a mutual aid effort that spanned the region and included mental health care workers who were called in to comfort victims and their families.
“It’s a moment of crisis with a lifetime of impact,” Stewart said, pointing out that survivors of trauma, especially when experienced in childhood, often suffer chronic health issues as adults.
Unfortunately, this wasn’t his first time treating victims of a mass shooting: That was in 2017, in the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, that left 26 people dead and nearly two dozen injured.
One of the lessons learned from that tragedy was the need to transport blood directly to victims instead of waiting for them to arrive at a trauma center. That strategy was deployed Tuesday when University Hospital and other area medical facilities mobilized to send donor blood to Uvalde, Stewart said.
Since 2017's shooting, Stewart has dedicated himself to gun injury prevention and education, speaking at more than 100 conferences across the country and overseeing education and community engagement events.
As of Thursday, University Hospital was treating four Uvalde patients, three girls and a 66-year-old woman. The woman and a 10-year-old were in serious condition, and a 9- and 10-year-old were in good condition.
Stewart remained encouraged about their recovery.
“I feel the senselessness of it,” he said. “We can do better. We must do better.”
In the days since the shooting in Uvalde, his mind often wanders to thoughts of the bluebonnet wildflower, with its eponymous, bonnet-shaped petals, that blooms throughout the Southwest.
It appears in the most unlikely places, like cracks in sidewalks and along busy highways, where people might not think to find glimmers of hope.
He said: “I try to find beauty in the world, and I think it’s there if we look for it even in the midst of horrible, horrible, awful, horrific pain and suffering.”