Boston Marathon 2016: Tales From Medical Tent B

The calm before the storm. Medical Tent B before the first runners checked in. Photo by Charles Lyang.
Written by Charles Lyang

By Charles Lyang
BU News Service

The Boston Marathon was unlike any other marathon I’ve ever been to. In its 120th year, the vibe I got from just being there was unreal. The spectators, volunteers, organizers and runners all have this special energy that I can’t even begin to describe. From 6 a.m. until 7 p.m., the excitement and support never waned. I’ve volunteered for numerous races and Chicago marathons throughout my life, but nothing could have prepared me for my first volunteer experience at the Boston Marathon.

I worked in Medical Tent B, which was located off the corner of Berkeley and St. James Street by the finish line. As a bed spotter, my main responsibility was to direct runners and sweep team members — who delivered runners that were unable to walk from the finish line in wheelchairs — to appropriate tent sections and available beds. It was an incredibly difficult job that required me to be aware of the available cots out of 143 while also staying outgoing and warm to distressed runners in need of attention.

I used this piece of paper to keep track of what sections had empty cots and where I had sent runners already. Eventually things got so hectic I started using my own system to keep track of what was going on, which ended up looking like chicken scratch. Photo by Charles Lyang.

I used this piece of paper to keep track of what sections had empty cots and where I had sent runners already. Eventually things got so hectic I started using my own system to keep track of what was going on, which ended up looking like chicken scratch. Photo by Charles Lyang.

The day started off slow. After checking in at around 7 a.m. at Medical Tent A by the Boston Public Library, I attended a medical volunteer presentation which went until 9 a.m., which was approximately the time when the first runners left the starting line in Hopkinton.

From then until the first elite runners finished the race, I mostly helped out with setting up cots, IV bags and acclimating myself to the hustle and bustle of the medical tent. A lot of time was spent introducing myself to volunteer veterans who were working their 20th, and even 30th, Boston marathons.

The first runners came in at 12:30 p.m., two and a half hours after the first men’s wave left the starting line. Within the first 10 minutes, I assigned three runners to different sections of the tent and thought to myself, “Wow, this is pretty easy.” Boy, was I wrong.

The next five hours were a complete blur. I don’t remember a lot of specifics, but I was standing, talking to runners and their sweep team assistants, and directing them to sections of the tent nonstop. I didn’t stop to eat, drink, or even use the bathroom. The number of runners who checked in were estimated to be about a thousand.

For us volunteers, working six hours straight was of no concern. Our main goal was to make sure that each and every runner who came in was treated and cared for so that they left in high spirits. As a bed spotter, I saw runners coming in with tears streaming down their faces or screaming in pain. A man came in sobbing and was so distraught that a psychiatrist was called to calm him down. Some were so cold that their bodies shook so violently that the wheelchairs quaked. Medical assistants spent as much as two hours trying to warm runners with heaters and insulated blankets. I directed at least 20 runners to the Intensive Care Unit.

But what impressed me the most was that throughout all this adversity, these runners all finished the race. They fought through the cramping, the headaches, the dehydration and the second thoughts. And the volunteers never stopped caring for these runners. Every time a runner came in, volunteers applauded all along the tent, shouting words of encouragement and congratulations.

And that’s what the Boston Marathon is really about. Finishing Boston Strong and never giving up.

My 2016 Boston Marathon was an eye-opening experience. I returned home exhausted, sore, but full of accomplishment and purpose. Without a doubt, I will return for the 121st marathon next year, either as a runner or a volunteer.

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