Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Reflections from the Joplin Tornado

As I start this off, I want to make one thing perfectly clear please.  I’m not a “Hero”.  I never have been.  Please don’t call me that.  I’m a man that did what anyone else in my role and my skillset would have done.  @MurseWisdom is a Veteran that served in a war zone.  @MurseWisdom is a hero.  Both of my parents proudly served in the military.  They are heroes.  

Dr. Kevin Kikta is a hero.  He wrote a story called 45 seconds about his night in the ER that night.  It’s a chilling read.  http://statemagazine.org/?p=531

Dr. James Smith is a hero.  He was doing surgery when the tornado hit and ran over 7 miles home to check on his family.  http://www.outpatientsurgery.net/news/2011/05/24-Operating-Through-the-Tornado

The countless, unnamed nurses, RTs, Rad techs, and all the medical personnel that covered both hospitals that night and continued to staff them until everyone was taken care of are the heroes as well.
Please save that prestigious title for them … they deserve it.

With that being said, here we go.  I’ve debated the last few days what exactly I wanted to say. I figured I would say, what I felt, what I did.

It was 5:41 p.m. and it was 32 seconds that would forever change the lives of people that lived anywhere near Joplin, MO.  I was watching the coverage on The Weather Channel.  There was discussion that Joplin and possibly a hospital had taken a direct hit; however, I knew this to be true well before it was confirmed on the air.  Facebook literally blew up.  I knew that St. John’s had taken a direct hit because of Facebook.  But when the weather channel cut live to a Mike Bettes standing in front of what used to be the hospital; my heart sank.  “I have friends and classmates that work there” I thought and then Mike came on the air and pleaded for doctors, nurses, medical personnel to please come to Joplin.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r8kg2dEJo_Y&feature=related

It was all I could take, myself and several other nurses loaded up to make the drive to Joplin not knowing what the hell we would find but knowing that we had to do something.  We arrived about 4 hours post touchdown and went to Memorial Hall where the medical triage was.  Upon arrival there, we found them fully staffed and they suggested we go to another secondary site.  We got there and waited about an hour before I finally was able to get through to the Red Cross.  They basically said that if we were already in Joplin that we should go to Freeman hospital.  

Driving to Freeman hospital was problematic to say the least as we had to drive past what was St. John’s hospital.  We were stopped 3 different times at three different roadblocks, one being right next to St. John’s hospital.  I do have to say that this was one of the most amazing experiences as a nurse.  The police officers stopped us, I said “We’re nurses” and they screamed “nurses” and opened the roadblocks for us.  Once we got to St. Johns we had to drive around the back of the hospital. Pictures will NEVER do this justice.  I’ve heard it described as what pictures of the atomic bomb in Hiroshima looked like and I’d have to agree.  It was complete and utter devastation.  People were wandering around aimlessly obviously in shock of what had happened and the place smelled of strong, strong natural gas.  We arrived at Freeman hospital finally and walked into the ER lobby.  It was one of most surreal scenes I’ve ever seen.  The lobby was literally overflowing with people and I would estimate approximately 1,000 people waiting to be seen.  I found a friend of mine that worked there and he said they were out of most every supply except gauze and gloves mostly so if we could do some basic first aid and try to find the most ill patients to be seen first.  We walked around and spoke with people, treated and cleaned bumps and bruises, and found severely injured people to pull back the moment ER beds opened up.  On the ambulance side of the ER they had a convoy of over 100 ambulances and they were literally loading people up and dispatching them to hospitals in a 200 mile radius.  There were buses loading up less severely injured people and transporting them as well. 
The looks on the faces of the people in the lobby is something I will never forgot.  It was disheartening seeing the look of pure shock at what had happened and trying to make sense of it all.  How could 32 seconds completely change their lives like that.  While we treated the bumps, bruises, and lacerations; we were not able to treat the mental issues that were filling that hospital and that town.  We stayed until about 4 am and then went home knowing that as much as we felt we did we probably didn’t do enough.  Little did I know at the time, but my ex’s brother was frantically searching for his daughter who was working at a local restaurant at the time.  Unfortunately, while they found her; her injuries were too severe to survive.  However, she died a hero as well.  She was working to keep customers and other employees calm before the tornado hit the establishment… she wasn’t even 18 yet.  

I’ve talked to employees from both hospitals and some still have trouble sleeping or still have mental issues relating to that 32 seconds.  

So there are a few things that I learned from this event: 1.  Social Networking is a must.  As I said, I knew that Joplin and St. John’s was hit long before it was announced.  Facebook was also a lifeline for people looking for loved ones at that time because if you couldn’t make a phone call you could send texts a little easier and a text to a loved one or facebook was a welcome sight for families.  2.  If you don’t know how to text – learn.  And teach your parents, grandparents, anyone with a cell phone to text.  To put it into perspective, I tried over 100 times to call the Red Cross that night.. I got through once.  Text messages were going after only a few times of trying to send.  3.  NO HOSPITAL IS PREPARED FOR A DISASTER OF THIS MAGNITUDE.  Freeman was out of supplies initially within a few hours.  Our hospitals are trained to keep supplies on hand for anticipated need.  Not for 1,000 people showing up in your lobby to be treated in a few hours.  I have disaster training and used to work in that field.  This last one scares me the most because I used to think our hospital is ready, but I think we would run through supplies in a matter of hours as well and then would have to get inventive like Freeman staff did.

However, Joplin doesn’t want to be known for that.  They want to be known for their drive to rebuild and they have done an amazing job.  It should be an inspiration for everyone of how to overcome adversity.



  1. Anonymous22/5/12 22:55

    I am speechless.

  2. That was amazing. My thoughts and prayers go out to everyone who got hurt or lostaloved one.

  3. Good write up. I wanted to go too but it was so chaotic and another storm was building so we stayed behind in case our community was hit.