Sunday, Jan. 20, 2019 | 2 a.m.
Separate threads of Oscar Monterrosa’s life tied together Oct. 1, 2017, in Las Vegas.
His time as a combat medic in the Iraq War, his high school days as a lifeguard in Northern California and later Oregon, his studies at UNLV, the classes he teaches and his job as a paramedic for Community Ambulance, a private paramedic company—all converged.
Community Ambulance was contracted to provide medical care at the Route 91 Harvest Festival, and Monterrosa picked up an extra shift that Sunday for overtime. No one expected that night would bring the worst mass shooting in modern history.
“Special events are historically known to be one of those easy shifts, not much responsibility involved, typically just kind of taking care of drunk people, handing out Band-Aids, sunscreen — very, very low responsibility,” Monterrosa said. “I even brought papers to grade from anatomy (class) ... Just so I can get that done while I had a slow, easy night.”
The slow and easy night turned into tragedy, one that forever changed the lives of so many people in our city. For Monterrosa, Oct. 1 helped cement his desire to pursue medicine as a way to give back to the community — whether that’s through his teaching, studying to be a doctor or providing care at Community Ambulance and Culinary Clinic of Las Vegas. He's studying to take standardized tests for medical school.
On the tragic day, he remembers setting up the tent on the festival grounds with his fellow EMT workers and taking note of all the medical supplies. The shift went smoothly, with a few concertgoers straggling into the tent with blisters looking for Band-Aids and cops looking for sunscreen or water. The most eventful part of the afternoon was when Monterrosa transported a patient to the hospital for chest pains.
As the festival crept later into the night, Monterrosa started providing care to concertgoers who were inebriated.
That’s when the first shots happened.
Monterrosa didn’t hear them. It wasn’t until a police officer in the tent asked, “Are those for real?,” and ran out into the crowd that it dawned on Monterrosa what was happening. He heard the second round of gunshots ring out. When he opened the flaps of the tent, he saw concertgoers stampeding toward the exit.
The patients in the tent fled, leaving Monterrosa and his team to take cover behind flipped tables, waiting for the gunfire to cease. When it did, he grabbed a medical bag to help those on the concert grounds.
Before he could leave, the first concertgoer stumbled into the medical tent. Monterrosa remembers it clearly. The patient was shot in the arm, so Monterrosa tied a tourniquet above the brachial artery, like he was taught in the Army. Then the second patient, who was shot in the head, came into the medical tent.
The wounded concertgoers flooded the tent; more police officers, EMTs and medics joined as well. The supplies were rapidly depleting. In the midst of the chaos, someone switched off the breaker to the tent. Monterrosa and the team were working in the dark using their iPhones as flashlights to see the patients they were treating.
When the scene was safe, Monterrosa looked out and felt relief to see the flashing lights of all the different ambulance companies in town lined up waiting to load patients.
The lessons from his time in the Army that helped him save lives as one of the first paramedics onsite during the shooting continue to help him save lives today.
More than a year and a half later, Monterrosa still teaches courses for future medical professionals at CSN and UNLV, works at Community Ambulance and started a job at the Culinary Clinic of Las Vegas. He also is taking classes to ensure his application for medical school is competitive.
At 6 feet, 2 inches, with a muscular build, Monterrosa has the potential to be intimidating. Instead, he’s bashful and nervous, pulling at the sleeves of his shirt or tugging at the lobe of his ear, uncertain why anyone would want to know about his life’s story and uncomfortable with being called a hero.
He was born to a mother later diagnosed as bipolar, and his father emigrated from El Salvador. At around age 3, his parents were separated. At first, Monterrosa lived with his father in a household that spoke mostly Spanish, a language that helps him connect with the patients he serves.
Monterrosa dropped out of high school. He worked as a lifeguard at a community pool and spent his 17th birthday in a trailer park.
“I decided to join (the Army) because my life circumstances weren’t very well,” he said. “I was living in a trailer in Oregon, and wasn’t really going to school. I wanted to get out of that situation.”
He deployed to Iraq for a year from August 2009 to August 2010, accompanying the same team with which he had trained. It was his time in the Army when he was trained to be a paramedic, a skill set he brought home to Las Vegas, where his father lives.
But it was also his time in Iraq that laid the foundation for many of the habits that make Monterrosa talented at his profession. It was there where he learned to be persistent with his goals — he goes to the gym every day despite having four jobs, and studies relentlessly. It was there where he learned to be humble and grateful for all of his life experiences.
“No matter how bad my life is, there’s people out there that live so much worse,” he said. “They live in houses made out of trash, and they play with trash, and that’s their daily life, and you hear gunfire in the distance.
“In these neighborhoods, it was humbling to be able to give people things that would help them. If you’re giving them antibiotics, or pain medications or basic medical supplies — things that they’ve never really had access to — it’s a good feeling to be able to give somebody that basic need along with food, and the things that everyone takes for granted.”
Monterrosa got his GED and went to CSN before transferring to UNLV, where he graduated in 2016 and worked as a paramedic full-time.
He re-enrolled in classes at UNLV to boost his grade-point average, with the intention to become a practitioner’s assistant. The day after Oct. 1, Monterrosa still arrived at UNLV to teach his class, said Victor Barragan, a biology instructor who works with Monterrosa at the UNLV School of Life Sciences.
Monterrosa is painfully shy, Barragan said. But once you get to know him, he is almost mischievous. During breaks between classes and studying, they go get ice-cream together, eat pancakes or devour sushi.
Monterrosa gets joy from helping other including at the Culinary Clinic of Las Vegas, where he treats members of the Culinary Union, Barragan said. Barragan watched Monterrosa during a shift at Community Ambulance and commented on his bedside manner.
“Any given person with the accomplishments he has would be borderline arrogant, like ‘Oh, I’m saving lives, I’m a paramedic,’ or ‘Oh, I’m a teacher, I’m changing lives,’ ” Barragan said. “He’s incredibly humble, and that’s what strikes me the most, is that he has so much to be proud of and so many reasons to walk with a pep in his step, but he’s very quiet and reserved.”
Barragan helps Monterrosa study for the medical school placement exams and theorizes that it was after Oct. 1 when Monterrosa realized he wanted to be more than a practitioner’s assistant and work toward being a doctor.
Monterrosa, for his part, isn’t bothered by telling his story of resiliency and heroism. He is most concerned with giving more to a community that he already gives so much to, asking nothing in return.