The community of Parkland, Florida, reacted with dread as reports of a mass high school shooting unfolded Wednesday.
Dr. Mike Zahalsky was seeing patients at his urology office just 3 blocks from the shooting, when he received a text. “It was my wife,” Zahalsky tells PEOPLE. “It said ‘call me now.’ I knew something was wrong.”
Zahalsky turned on the news to see the tragic news that a shooter — later identified as Nikolas Cruz, 19 — had gone on a shooting spree, killing at least 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.
“I dropped everything that I was doing,” says Zahalsky, a father of three. “I apologized to my patients and ran to the hospital, because that’s what you do when you hear about a mass casualty.”
When he got to the Broward Health North hospital, Zahalsky found the head trauma surgeon. “I went up to him and said, ‘How can I help?'” he recalls. “He said, ‘We’re wheeling a patient up right now. We’re going to open her up. Come help me.’ That was my first five minutes.”
Before he knew it, Zahalsky was helping operate on a young girl who had been hit by gunfire. She pulled through, but the next girl he saw died in the ER before she could be transported to the operating room. “It was terrible,” he says. “She unfortunately didn’t make it.”
“It was chaos,” Zahalsky says. “There were people everywhere who wanted to know if their children were there. There were police everywhere. I had one of my friends there who was begging me to know what was happening to his kid who had made it to my hospital. We know now that his kid didn’t make it.”
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“There was another problem: the kids didn’t have ID,” says Zahalsky. “They had just dropped their book bags and ran, and there was no way to identify them in the moment if they didn’t have their stuff with them. They’re not carrying wallets with ID. And how do you describe who someone is? I could say, ‘She looked like she was 15 with long brown hair,’ and that could be anyone at all.”
A nurse at the hospital tells PEOPLE about the confusion and chaos as patients arrived, including the alleged shooter.
“When [the suspect] got here for treatment, all hell broke loose,” says the nurse. “There was media outside, and not just a few of them. Dozens of people with cameras, shouting. Lots of angry onlookers who were yelling. It was like everyone just started to yell at once, but you couldn’t hear any words, like there were so many of them yelling that when the doors opened, I could just hear the sound inside the hospital even though they were outside.”
“He had a very heavy police escort with him. I’d say eight officers, maybe more,” says the nurse. “They weren’t going to let him go anywhere. One of our chiefs treated him with a senior nurse manager. The rest of us were taking care of other patients.”
“We all knew that he was the shooter, but you can’t go there in your mind,” the nurse continues. “A patient is a patient, at least while he’s in the ER. But yeah, it was intense.”
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As the injured were stabilized and the dead were transported to the medical examiner’s office, many doctors left, including Zahalsky. “You go home and cry,” he says. “You do it as long as you need to do it, and you sequester your emotions. I finally let my emotions out when I was home with my wife and my kids. I held my kids tighter.”
Now that reality has sunk in, Zahalsky says it’s time for change – and he’s got some ideas.
“[The alleged shooter] was on social media, using his own name,” he says, incredulously. “When you get online and shop for something, you start getting ads on social media for the things you’re shopping for. It makes me wonder: Was he getting ads for guns? We don’t know. But they have all this information about what we’re doing and they use it to sell us stuff. It would be great if they could alert authorities that people are doing things that are dangerous.”
“Social media is like Minority Report,” he continues. “They know what we’re going to do before we do it. They know all our likes, where we are, what we buy. So there was a warning sign here. I wish that the people with this information would take the responsibility seriously.”
Zahalsky, who recently competed on Survivor, is now helping by arranging students to be bussed 3 hours to Orlando to visit SeaWorld. (A Survivor contestant from next season, Morgan Ricke, works at SeaWorld as a Killer Whale Trainer and helped arrange it.) “The kids need to get away from Parkland to get their minds off it,” he says. “The outpouring of love from the community is amazing. Parkland is strong; these kids are strong. We will move forward.”