A few Seattle doctors returned this week from a rotation in Standing Rock, North Dakota. That’s where an estimated 2,000 protesters are demonstrating against the Dakota Access oil pipeline. We talked with one doctor, who was part of triage team as the standoff escalated Sunday night.
Dr. Robie Sterling finished his residency at Swedish Medical Center a few months ago. Not long after, he traveled to North Dakota with two other doctors from Swedish.
But he was alone in the medic tent when the radio call came in Sunday evening. There was a confrontation happening at the front line.
Sterling: “Police were starting to shoot the rubber bullets.”
Police also used water sprays and tear gas.
It was dark, below freezing, and injured people started to pour in.
Sterling: “The initial ones were nearly all head shots. Pretty much everyone had a concussion. Some of them had lacerations to the head. One woman had an eye injury.”
Sterling says the camp had just started to prepare for incidents like this, but they were far from ready.
Physicians and volunteers worked through the night as protesters and police clashed. Camp organizers estimate more than 200 were injured, and at least 17 hospitalized.
Sterling says people arrived with sheets of ice hanging off them. They were treated for hypothermia.
Some were crying, others in disbelief. Sterling says images of that night will stay with him.
Sterling: “Seeing that degree of violence inflicted upon unarmed Americans who are exercising their freedom of speech was really shocking. And that it was done by police officers was all the more appalling. So that’s what’s been on my mind most since coming back.”
Opponents of the pipeline fear it will harm drinking water and Native American cultural sites. The developer disputes that and says the pipeline will be safe.
Sterling says he and his colleagues may return to Standing Rock later this winter. But he’s hopeful a solution can still be reached before President Barack Obama leaves office.