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ER doctor found career calling after responding to 2011 Indiana State Fair tragedy

Ascension St. Vincent’s Dr. Stephanie Gardner was attending the Sugarland concert at the state fair when the stage collapsed
Posted at 5:00 AM, Aug 13, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 15:20:46-04

INDIANAPOLIS - Ten years ago, Dr. Stephanie Gardner was a young resident physician at IU Health. She took her husband to the Sugarland concert as a gift for his birthday. For her and so many others who were there, it was a life-changing event.

"When the stage came down, I had no thought, there was no decision,” remembers Dr. Stephanie Gardner. “I stood up and I raced towards it and for me, that seemed like the most natural, most normal response.”

Little did Dr. Gardner know how attending the fair that night would alter the course of her career. And, take her a decade later to the site of yet another collapse.

It is a moment engraved in her memories. A tragic accident that would change her life.

“I was there, front row of the stands, and I saw the stage come down,” says Dr. Gardner.

Dr. Gardner’s natural instincts immediately kicked into high gear.

“At the time, kind of ran toward it without any thought as to what to do, I just went, ran for it,” Dr. Gardner explains.

Just one year into her residency at IU Health, the young doctor used the skills she had to help the victims of the fallen stage debris, in whatever way she could.

“I remember feeling like a total deer in the headlights when I ran up to this group and this lady was unconscious and I stood there for just a second and I almost had this like, oh my gosh, what am I doing, I should just turn around and leave,” remembers Dr. Gardner.

“Like there is nothing I can do. And at that second, the security officer came up right beside me and said, 'I found you a doctor! I found you a doctor!' And they all turn around and look at me with those huge eyes and I was like, oh shit, oh shit. I was like oh my gosh, what do I do? I don't even have a stethoscope, I have nothing. I am like, what can I even offer at this point? I was like, don't show them how scared you are, like say something, say something. So I was like, let’s use these chairs and get her out of here. And hopefully, they didn't notice how scared I was but I think that is also my inspiration to learn emergency medicine and pre-hospital medicine and not ever feel that clueless again.”

In those moments of action, mixed with fear, Dr. Gardner learned an extremely valuable lesson, one that would affect her future career.

With that first real-life experience of being thrown into disaster and mass-gathering medicine, she was inspired to pursue an EMS track to work in pre-hospital medicine.

“As a probably typical of interns or young doctors, I thought I kind of knew what I was doing until that experience,” says Dr. Gardner. “And then just realized that out-of-hospital or pre-hospital medicine is a completely different ball game. And knowing what to do in a hospital doesn't mean you know what to do when you are out in the field and you don't have computers and nurses and order sets and all that stuff.”

Now, Dr. Gardner is an ER Physician and the EMS Medical Director at Ascension St. Vincent in Indianapolis, where she also trains paramedics and firefighters.

Her passion also led her to serve with Indiana Task Force 1 with the Search & Rescue Team as a Medical Team Manager. Just this summer, her position with Task Force 1 took her to Surfside, Florida to assist in the deadly condo collapse.

“We, first responders, are the type of people who when we see tragedy when we see disaster, we run towards it, right,” explains Dr. Gardner. “And that is not something that I can teach students. It is not something that I can tell you how to do, you are either that type of person or you are not. And as first responders, we are. And that is something that I learned about myself and one of the reasons I loved EMS and I learned more about it and have really spent my career doing pre-hospital emergency services.”

Dr. Gardner has been on three other deployments with Indiana Task Force 1, to assist with Hurricanes Matthew, Dorian, and Delta. But, it all started with what happened at the Indiana State Fair ten years ago and the natural instinct to run toward tragedy and help others.