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Pentagon Pharmacist Learns Lessons of Disaster

Donna Young

Last Tuesday morning, Lorna Lagarde, pharmacy chief of the DiLorenzo Tricare Health Clinic at the Pentagon in Arlington, Va., thought the noise she heard outside her office came from utility workers going about their business. But then, she began to notice dust forming in the air.

"It was suspended and just sitting there," she said.

It was difficult for Lagarde to tell what was causing the disruption outside the eight-inch thick, concrete walls of her office.

"Then I heard some shouts and thought it was just another fire drill," she said. "So I started to leisurely walk to the area where we were supposed to meet when there was a drill. But then, people were running. I could see their faces. There was fear."

At about 9:40 a.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 11, American Airlines Flight 77, carrying 64 people from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles, and one of four flights that had been hijacked by terrorists that morning, had crashed into the west side of the Pentagon.

Lagarde’s office was on the opposite side of where the jetliner had struck the 6.63-million-square-foot building. When she got outside, Lagarde could see a "black ball of smoke."

"It was very, very dark, so I started to run across the highway," she said. "I was wondering what had happened. You are on your own in situations like this. But for someone in my position, I have to make sure things are organized. But in chaos, you can’t control everybody."

Lagarde said she and others ran to an area on the other side of Virginia State Highway 110, across from the Pentagon.

"Then there was a call [over a bullhorn] for all medical people to report back to the clinic," she said. "We had two crash carts at the clinic. We went to an area inside of the courtyard and formed teams."

After evacuating the area a second time, because of false reports of another plane headed for the Pentagon, the medical teams were able to return again to the building, Lagarde said.

"They sent some of us up to the disaster site," she said. "There were already casualties. We had to get them stabilized. We had to quickly prepare morphine and Demerol for the nurses. I wanted to have things be organized, but there was no time to document everything. We had to stay focused on giving the nurses and doctors the best service we could."

Lagarde said she discovered on that day "how much pharmacy has a job" when disaster strikes.

"We have to be the ones to have control over the drugs that are given," she said. "The nurses are caught up emotionally with the patients and everything that is going on. It was better for us to be there preparing the syringes for them. The lesson I learned most that day is that we have to have things immediate and ready to use."

Lagarde said in order to stay concentrated on what she was doing, she had to keep some distance between where the victims were being treated and where she was preparing the drugs.

"It worked better to have a runner ask what was needed and then come and get it from me," she said. "I was surprised at how I was able to keep my concentration that day after everything I saw. These are sights I will never forget. It can all affect you. People with burned skin and hair, and soot all over their bodies. I saw five people that were real bad. Some of them had their skin peeling off."

Lagarde said she was at the Pentagon from 7 a.m. Tuesday until 11 a.m. Wednesday morning—28 hours.

"When you are that busy you don’t notice," she said. "You don’t feel it with all the excitement."

Military personnel quickly set up triage tents, Lagarde said.

"They are so fast with things like this."

Area emergency-response teams and medical personnel from local hospitals were also at the disaster zone minutes after the jetliner hit.

Lagarde said that, within a few hours after the crash, most of the drugs she dispensed went to rescue workers who were suffering from cuts, burns, and eye and sinus irritation. By today, the pharmacy was dispensing antifungal drugs—for firefighters who were suffering from athlete’s foot after several days of wearing wet socks and boots.

Lagarde said the emotional effects of the tragedy did not hit her until five days later, on Sunday, when she heard others singing patriotic songs during a memorial service.

"It wasn’t until I was out into a different environment, around other people, that it hit me, because I had been trying to be so strong for everyone else all week," she said.

Lagarde has been head of the Pentagon pharmacy for eight years. The pharmacy prepares drugs for anyone treated at the Pentagon clinic or any of the 14 Washington-area military clinics.

Lagarde also has the special mission of preparing prescription drugs for the more than 6,000 defense and embassy attaches located throughout the world. Those drugs are delivered through military and State Department mail services.

The Pentagon pharmacy staff consists of three civilian pharmacists, including Lagarde, three civilian technicians, three U.S. Air Force technicians, and two U.S. Navy technicians.