By Don Walker of the Journal Sentinel
Rita Higgins was caring for Natalie Engeriser, her 11-year-old patient, when Natalie's mother, Katie, walked into a hospital room on the seventh floor of Children's Hospital of Wisconsin.
There's some kind of disturbance in the hallway, Natalie's mother told Higgins Thursday.
"When she said 'disturbance,' I was thinking one of the kiddos was having a hard time," Higgins said Saturday.
"I stepped into the hallway and I immediately realized something was wrong," Higgins said. "There were two nurses at the nursing station and by the looks on their faces, I knew something was wrong. I heard one of the nurses say, 'Oh my God, they are shooting. Call an active-shooter code.'"
A man police later identified as Ashanti Hendricks was armed and police were trying to arrest him. But Higgins, 37, a registered nurse who started working at Children's last February, didn't really know what was unfolding.
But Higgins, a mother of two just starting her third career, knew what to do, as did the rest of the medical staff.
"I immediately turned back around and I said to Natalie, 'Honey, I'm going to need you to get out of bed and me and your mom are going to help you get into the bathroom.' I was going to need them to go into the bathroom and lock the door behind them," she said.
Higgins wanted to be sure she didn't scare Natalie. The girl is one of Higgins' favorite patients. In fact, when Higgins arrived for work on Thursday, she had been assigned a different floor. Higgins was disappointed because she liked working with Natalie and had made strides in her care.
"A co-worker saw how disappointed I was," Higgins said. "A fellow nurse traded with me, basically. She said, 'Hey, Rita, I know you want to take care of Natalie.'"
Later, as the hospital went into lockdown, she was unsure what was unfolding on the unit. That's when she helped get Natalie out of harm's way.
"We got her and the medical equipment in the bathroom with mom," Higgins said. "I told her to lock the door. I looked them straight in the face and said, 'Don't open the door until I tell you to open the door.' I looked at Natalie and said, 'It's going to be OK.' And I closed the door."
At Children's, doors to the hospital rooms don't lock. But next to the closed door was a small window. As Higgins stood guard, protecting a mother and her little girl, she managed to peer out, trying to make sense of the noise, the chaos.
"Looking back on it, in the period of time when we truly did not know what was going on, we didn't know if someone was just literally shooting, and we didn't know police were involved," Higgins said. "There was that unknown period of time when you think, 'Is this door going to open with a guy with a gun?'"
"For all three of us, that was pretty horrible. All I know is that someone was on the unit with a gun. Shots had been fired," Higgins said.
At some point Higgins saw another nurse in the hallway who was watching a TV monitor where she could see police handcuffing the man elsewhere on the floor.
"That's when I stepped out of the room, looking at the monitor," Higgins said. "Seconds later, I heard more scuffling and the man was suddenly running onto my side down the hall and past me. I went back in the room and closed the door."
Police finally subdued him.
"I knew it was loud and so much stuff was going on," she said. "God knows what (Natalie and her mom) were thinking.
"I told them I was going to stay in here. I told them a bad guy was captured. I told them they were going to hear a lot of stuff."
Natalie and her mother came out of the bathroom. Higgins told Natalie and her mother to turn on the television and turn the volume up loud. Drown out the noise outside.
Two days after the ordeal, Higgins was full of praise for Natalie, her mother and the other nurses on the floor who performed calmly, admirably and courageously.
"I was thinking I was glad I stayed on the floor that day and that I was able to be there for Natalie," Higgins said. "You build up trust and she trusted me."
Later that night, when Higgins was about done for the day, a music therapist came with a guitar to visit Natalie.
The therapist played the Katy Perry hit, "Firework."
"That's the way I ended my shift, rocking out with Natalie with 'Firework,'" Higgins said.