Dr. Timothy M. O’Keefe, MD, Family Medicine, tells his story about the night the tornado hit Joplin as he helped patients in the emergency department of Mercy Hospital on May 22, 2011.
As the storm hit, I was unaware it was a tornado. The power went out and the emergency generators came on, but in less than a minute the power went out again. Total power failure in the hospital is unheard of. The fact the generators had failed raised anxiety levels, wondering what was going on outside.
The hospital and the ED I was in, was pummeled another 4 minutes. When it was over the ED was destroyed. The main gas line was leaking, liquid oxygen was venting off damaged tanks, the trauma helicopter was destroyed with it’s jet fuel blown through the ED.
Our disaster plan calls for re-establishing the ED in the Post Anesthesia Recovery Unit (PACU), in the center of the building. We worked our way through the radiology department heading that way with about 40 patients.
Those hallways were full of debris, lights and wires hanging down, water leaking and total darkness. It was like moving through a pitch black cave. Part way to the PACU, it became obvious the plan would never work. The building was dead and we had to evacuate. It was a difficult moment when you are standing in the dark with 40 people and you have to make that decision. This building where you worked your entire career, over decades stood for healing and caring, that had just saved you and those around you from a fierce storm, was now dead. The building now posed a danger to us and had to be evacuated.
We walked and transported into whatever uncertainty awaited outside. The first look outside brought sunlight which was nice after all the darkness but also a look at total destruction. It was shocking, there was nothing left of the neighborhoods around our hospital. How many people must have died or been severely injured, it was difficult to take it all in. There was a continuous stream of injured people arriving while we evacuated everyone from the building. We set up a triage area across the street in a parking lot. We also continued to enter the building to get vital supplies, medicine, IV fluids and medical instruments. There was concern the natural gas would explode, but people kept coming for help so we stayed near the hospital to help get them to care.
Another storm hit with rain and hail. Getting cold is very bad for trauma patients and now we had many that were cold and wet. We needed to get patients under roof and we decided on Memorial Hall. The first group of caregivers left on foot with all the supplies they could carry heading toward the Hall. That is where the Mercy ED was re-established.
The very long day continued. And what of my family?