As residents of Moore, Okla. remembered the one-year anniversary of the deadly tornado that ripped through their community by breaking ground on a new hospital, they could also look toward the state's northeast corner for a symbol of hope.
This May marked the three-year anniversary of the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin, Mo., just across the Oklahoma border. Both communities lost a hospital in their storms, and Joplin’s new health care facilities are signs of overall recovery and revival.
St. John’s Hospital in Joplin, now known as Mercy, was ravaged beyond repair on May 22, 2011. The tornado took six lives there. At nearby Freeman Hospital, veteran nurse Leslie Allen and the emergency room were inundated with the injured.
“Elbow to elbow, limping, body parts hanging, wraps to control bleeding; they were just shoulder-to-shoulder, and it looked like a scene out of a horror movie,” Allen said.
Twelve hours and 27 surgeries later, Freeman Hospital regained its collective composure, and only one ER patient died that night. One official credits a disaster drill conducted just days before the storm as a lifesaver after the tornado hit.
“There were times when you used to have to beg people to participate in your exercises and events,” according to Skip Harper, environmental and health safety officer at the Joplin hospital. “Now I have people come to me and say, ‘Skip, can we try this, we’re concerned about this.’”
Freeman Hospital learned just how vital phones and the Internet are to operating efficiently and safely. A retired ambulance has new life as a mobile command vehicle, packed with communications gear, including a direct radio line to the Missouri Dept. of Health and Senior Services.
With their combined experience and new equipment, the hospital says it can now set up another facility for 125 beds and be up and running in less than an hour.
Three years later, the hospital has also fine-tuned its emergency response procedures, but recovery runs much deeper than plans on paper. Paula Baker, president and CEO of Freeman Health System, says the Joplin community is learning that behavioral health cannot be ignored following a catastrophe.
“We have people who before their very eyes saw people die – maybe their own family members, had loved ones ripped out of their arms,” Baker said. “It’s not enough to do the surgeries and heal the broken bones and the fractures and all of those injuries.”
Even as a veteran nurse with 27 years experience, Freeman’s Leslie Allen says her May 22 memories are hard to forget, but Joplin’s steady efforts to clean up and rebuild are therapeutic.
Joplin officials are proud of the fact that all tornado clean up was completed within 90 days, but Mercy Hospital also showed amazing determination to rebuild, despite its destruction.
Chief financial officer Shelly Hunter says Mercy’s new hospital, off Interstate 44, will be complete in a year and feature a state-of-the-art phone alert system, a new neo-natal intensive care unit, underground emergency utilities and of course, storm shelters.
“We put in an additional 8 million dollars just for storm hardening, so almost tornado proof,” Hunter said. “You know you think of the Titanic, but we are about as tornado proof as you can make a hospital.”
Mercy’s phases of recovery included the temporary use of mobile trailers, but Hunter says those aren’t there anymore. Instead, they’re on loan to the destroyed Moore Medical Center.