For Loyola Nursing Students, the Mass Shooting at Mercy Hospital Hit Close to Home

On Monday, November 19, a man with a history of violent behavior walked into the parking lot of Mercy Hospital with a gun. He had gone to confront the woman who had broken off their engagement and gotten a restraining order against him.

In the minutes that followed, four people would be dead.

As the shots rang out, 20-year-old Austin Reigle, a nursing student at Loyola, was sitting in his bedroom. He got a text in a group message with other students who work at Mercy through Loyola’s nursing school, telling him to turn on the news.

“I turned on the TV and my mouth was just open and my heart was racing,” Reigle said. “That could’ve been us, that could’ve been me.”

Meanwhile, Grace Gallagher, a nursing student at Loyola who, like Reigle, spends one day every week at Mercy, got a terrified call from her mom.

“She called me in a panic because she forgot that I’m there Tuesdays instead of Mondays, so she was so worried,” Gallagher, 21, said.

38-year-old Dr. Tamara O’Neal, who said in her restraining order that the shooter was often threatening and slept with a gun under his pillow, was killed in the hospital’s parking lot. Inside, 25-year-old pharmacy resident Dayna Less was shot as she got out of an elevator. And a 28-year-old cop and father of three named Samuel Jimenez was killed while trying to stop the shooter, who later turned the gun on himself.  

As the city began to make sense of the tragedy, many of the students who work at Mercy wrestled with the knowledge that the crisis of mass shootings in America had come to their backyard.

Gallagher said it was hard to comprehend at first.

“I was kind of in disbelief,” Gallagher said. “I know there are a lot of shootings nowadays, unfortunately, but until it happens somewhere where you actually know people and are a part of the community, you still feel like ‘oh, it’s not going to happen to me.’”  

But it did happen to her.

Not only was the shooting at the students’ place of work, it happened inside the very same door they walk in every day.

“We park our cars at 5 am, we go through that lobby every morning,” Reigle said. “I read on the news there was a woman [who was shot] in the pharmacy area … I know it, I see it every day.”

Their shock soon turned to relief, however, as the students realized they themselves could’ve been victims.

Reigle said the shooting happened around the same time they leave the hospital. Had the shooting been just one day later, they would’ve been walking out right as it began.

“They send us down to that pharmacy sometimes, so it could’ve been any of us getting out of the elevator that got shot if it’d just happened a day later,” Gallagher said.

The next day, however, it was back to work.

Gallagher was there at her usual time Tuesday morning. But the memory of what had happened the previous day hung heavy over the 292-bed hospital on Chicago’s Near South Side, 12 miles from Loyola’s campus in Rogers Park.

Gallagher said it was surprisingly quiet when she first arrived.

“A lot of the patients had decided to leave because they had that option, so the patient number we had was cut down significantly,” Gallagher said. “It was just an overall very somber tone.”

During their “morning huddle,” a quick meeting held before the staff assumes their various roles for the day, a nurse addressed the tragedy. She said there was a Mass being offered, and that all were welcome to attend.

The students, nurses, doctors and hundreds of other staff had a job to do and patients to care for. So they got to work.

“Really nothing was that much different,” said 20-year-old Diego Enriquez, a junior nursing student who was there with Gallagher on Tuesday. “They had slightly more security but it was just a quiet day, very slow.”

It was, of course, impossible to forget what had happened, and what it meant for the students’ careers going forward.

Reigle said he worried the shooting would distract the patients from their recovery, causing them to worry about their safety rather than their health.

“That’s just not something I want to discuss with patients when they’re in their most critical stage,” Reigle said. “They don’t want to be there, but our objective is to provide the best care for them and not have to worry or talk about gun violence or what has happened in the hospital in the past.”

The shooting at Mercy changed that. Now, not only do the students — and the professional medical staff there — have to worry about caring for patients, they have to think about what they would do if another shooting occurred.

“They don’t train you for ‘how are we going to comfort our patients that there’s an active shooter on the first floor in the lobby,’” Reigle said. “We’ve never had not even a discussion about what to do. Not only in the nursing school, but at Loyola in general.”

The Phoenix reached out to Mercy Hospital and Loyola Campus Safety for comment, but hasn’t heard back.

Loyola’s private police force, Campus Safety, does have information about what to do in an active shooter situation online. And Loyola installed special locks in classrooms across campus that are designed to prevent a shooter from getting in.

Gallagher said she’d thought about a shooting happening at Loyola, but had never even considered what she’d do if there was one at a hospital.

After the shooting at Mercy, however, she said she “definitely” has.

“In the role of a nurse, you can’t just be worried about yourself,” Gallagher said. “You have to be worried about your patients as well … It’s not something that’s in the job title, it’s not like I have to be worried about what would happen if there’s a shooting, but I guess in today’s climate everyone has to be worried about what they would do.”

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