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Allegheny

Doctor comes face-to-face with synagogue shooting suspect: 'He's a very lost man'

Luis Fábregas
| Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, 2:42 p.m.
Robert Bowers, accused of killing 11 people inside the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, appeared in a wheelchair Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, at his first court hearing at the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh's Downtown
Dave Klug for the Tribune-Review
Robert Bowers, accused of killing 11 people inside the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill, appeared in a wheelchair Monday, Oct. 29, 2018, at his first court hearing at the federal courthouse in Pittsburgh's Downtown
The entrance to the Emergency Department at Allegheny General Hospital is shown, Wednesday, June 21, 2017.
Andrew Russell | Tribune-Review
The entrance to the Emergency Department at Allegheny General Hospital is shown, Wednesday, June 21, 2017.
Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh’s North Side, part of Allegheny Health Network
Allegheny General Hospital on Pittsburgh’s North Side, part of Allegheny Health Network

Dr. Jeff Cohen walked into the trauma unit at Allegheny General Hospital, and his eyes locked with synagogue shooting suspect Robert Bowers.

Cohen, president of the Pittsburgh hospital and a longtime member of the Tree of Life Congregation, wanted to ask Bowers how he was feeling.

“He’s a very lost guy,” Cohen told the Tribune-Review. “It’s just my impression. It’s not based on fact. I mean, he’s coming off the ambulance yelling ‘kill all the Jews’ and those are the people treating him. That is the height of stupidity.”

Two of the lead people who immediately treated Bowers at Allegheny General were Jewish, Cohen said. They include the attending emergency room doctor and a registered nurse whose own father is a rabbi, he said.

Cohen declined to name them but praised them for honoring their profession by putting their emotions aside.

“It’s hard. You have this internal debate with yourself. Am I going to do what is right? And you do. You do what you think is right,” Cohen said. “The mission here is taking care of people. They didn’t ask anything about him. He was a patient.”

Not long after treating Bowers, the young nurse broke down in tears. Cohen met with him for about 20 minutes and thanked him for doing his job.

“He was pretty broken,” Cohen said. “I told him how proud I was. He went home and hugged his parents.”

Cohen, 63, lives about 50 yards from the Tree of Life Congregation where the mass shooting occurred. He was home on Saturday morning when he heard a loud noise outside. Within minutes, his daughter yelled to him to come downstairs and they watched as police and SWAT teams descended on their street.

He described the congregation as a safe place where people gather daily to pray and socialize. His own mother-in-law attends services nearly every day and knew nine of the 11 people who were killed. Cohen knew them, too, pausing to mention Cecil and David Rosenthal, two brothers killed in the massacre.

“The Rosenthal brothers were both handicapped. They were very comfortable there. This is the Jewish version of ‘Cheers.’ Everybody knew their names. This was their home,” Cohen said.

Cohen, who has been president of Allegheny General Hospital for two years, said that on Sunday night he became more and more curious about meeting Bowers. The suspect was being treated for gunshot wounds and had been placed in isolation to allow police to guard him while he received treatment.

“I just wanted to see him with my own eyes,” he said. “He had a mother once, or maybe still does. He was loved by a family. How do you get from here to there? I wanted to have my own impression.”

His conclusion: “He’s not the face of the devil. He’s just a guy who committed a very heinous act.”

Luis Fábregas is editor of the Tribune-Review’s Valley News Dispatch and Pittsburgh digital editions. You can contact Luis at lfabregas@tribweb.com or via Twitter @LuisTrib.

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