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Trauma surgeon recounts efforts to save slain officers

Dr. Steven Epstein, the medical director of trauma services at Bayfront Medical Center, was on the front lines of Monday’s shootings.

LARA CERRI | Times

Dr. Steven Epstein, the medical director of trauma services at Bayfront Medical Center, was on the front lines of Monday’s shootings.

ST. PETERSBURG — A day after two St. Petersburg police officers were killed in a violent standoff, there was a profound sadness in the air at Bayfront Medical Center, site of the intense efforts to save them.

"It's as if a pall, a sad pall, has come over," said Dr. Steven Epstein, medical director of trauma services. "People are coming by to tell me how sad they were."

Killed in the exchange of gunfire were Officer Jeffrey A. Yaslowitz, 39, and Sgt. Thomas J. Baitinger, 48.

"These two gentlemen — officers — were well-known here," Epstein said Tuesday afternoon. "Not only were they servants to uphold peace in St. Petersburg, they were friends of people in the emergency room. I knew both personally."

Epstein was subdued, speaking softly as he recounted Monday's events.

He was home when he received a call from the emergency room at 7:59 a.m., telling him that a police officer — Baitinger — had been shot and was being brought to the hospital.

The first shooting victim, a deputy U.S. marshal, had already been taken to Bayfront, with injuries that were not life-threatening.

Trauma surgeon Amy Koler was on duty. Epstein and another trauma surgeon, Jeffery Johnson, headed in to assist.

About 8:15 or 8:20, with Koler and Johnson treating Baitinger, Epstein decided to take the unusual step of going to the crime scene. He heard that there was at least one more wounded officer still in the house, and Epstein thought he could do the most good if he was there during the "golden hour.'' That's the window of time in which it's most likely that critically injured trauma patients can be saved.

A police sergeant drove Epstein to the scene at 3734 28th Ave. S. There, the doctor waited with a team of medics until Yaslowitz was pulled from the home between 9:25 and 9:30. Officers brought Yaslowitz out of the line of fire, protected by a bulldozer.

Epstein took just a few seconds to examine him before getting into the ambulance with the officer for the three-mile ride to Bayfront.

"He was in extremely critical condition," Epstein said, though he declined to go into details. On the way, the surgeon gave his patient fluids and oxygen.

By the time the ambulance arrived at Bayfront, Baitinger was gone. Yaslowitz was pronounced dead 15 to 20 minutes after reaching the hospital, Epstein said.

Two men who had so often brought others in need of help to Bayfront now were gone. But their friends at the hospital could not stop to grieve, Epstein explained.

Staff from throughout the facility was mobilized to the emergency department, bracing for the possibility of more arrivals. Operating rooms and CAT scan machines were kept at the ready. Food was brought to the families of the victims and the law enforcement officers who had gathered there.

But Tuesday, when the full weight of what happened set in, Epstein acknowledged it was difficult to return to business as usual at one of the state's busiest trauma centers.

Epstein, 62, has seen a lot in his nearly 25 years at Bayfront. He has gone to an accident scene to amputate the limb of a trapped victim. In Bayfront's operating rooms, he successfully treated the gunshot wounds of two undercover police officers.

But he has never seen anything like Monday's events.

"I always hoped in my tenure here I would never see something like this," he said. "It's just inconceivable that we would have two police officers shot in St. Petersburg.

"And it's even harder for the trauma team, and the hospital as a whole, to know that we couldn't save them."

Richard Martin can be reached at rmartin@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8330.

Trauma surgeon recounts efforts to save slain officers 01/25/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, January 25, 2011 11:37pm]
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