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Sense of Community: Mercy Joplin One Year After the Tornado

"I'm standing on a hill overlooking the hospital that was destroyed a year ago when the massive tornado moved through Joplin.  It's slowly being torn down--you can hear the equipment being used for that.  From here you can also see the facility that opened in April.  That is Mercy Joplin until a permanent hospital opens in March 2015."

One week after the tornado hit, Mercy Joplin was once again operating in a MASH-type facility next to the destroyed building.  It had 26 in-patient beds and a 20-bed emergency room. 

That allowed Mercy to continue to serve patients—though on a much smaller scale until August when modular buildings were set up.  That brought the hospital to 46 beds, and Mercy Joplin President and CEO Gary Pulsipher says it was a vast improvement…

"You know, in the tent, for example, in that field hospital,  we had to take people outside to go to the restroom, you know, it just wasn't built with those kind of things.  Air conditioning was really challenging last summer, too, trying to keep those things cool."

Knowing it would take three to four years to rebuild a new hospital, Mercy Joplin officials began planning for a more permanent facility that would serve their needs in the interim.  The latest Mercy Joplin—a component-built hospital—opened April 15thon the same campus as the destroyed building.  According to Pulsipher, the components are steel framed and on permanent foundations…

"But those components are built individually in California, and they allowed this building to be built much quicker than a normal construction, so they hauled these 247 different pieces of this component hospital, put it all together, and that started operating April 15."

The latest hospital brought Mercy Joplin’s number of in-patient beds to 110.

The new facility offers all new, state-of-the-art equipment and is purely clinical.  It was factory built, and the massive parts were trucked in from California.  When you walk in, it feels like a hospital—there’s a full-scale ER, a labor and delivery department, in-patient rooms with private bathrooms, a cafeteria, gift shop, pharmacy and chapel.  The windows in the critical corridors of the latest facility are designed to withstand 200 mph winds.

And work has begun at the southeast corner of Main and I-44 on the permanent hospital, which is expected to be completed in March 2015.

Pulsipher says, the 850,000 square foot  building is designed with patients in mind…

"It's combined clinic and hospital, so many of the specialty physicians will be right in the same building, and, for example, if I go to see my cardiologist, he finds a problem, he's admitting me to a room just down the hall, so it's very combined.  It'll be beautiful."

Several committees were formed after the storm to deal with various issues Mercy Joplin faced.  One was a site selection committee.

Just after the storm, the issue came up of whether or not Mercy should rebuild on the opposite side of town from the city's other hospital--Freeman…

"We got some kickback from people that, 'you should have built way on the other side of town just in case this ever happens again.'  When we actually looked at and mapped different sites that tornadoes had hit, there's no rhyme or reason to it, so we didn't, you know there just wasn't science you could put to that, so we're happen we will never be hit again, but it was part of the equation."

He says the new hospital is being built to be able to withstand another tornado should the unthinkable happen again…

"The building codes basically require enough so that you can get people to safety, not so you can save the building but that you can save the people inside of it, but as you do more and more storm hardening, you actually get it to the point where you could save the building as well, and it's millions and millions of dollars more as you go up that ladder, but we're going to have a very very secure building."

Area hospitals were a huge help after the tornado hit Joplin—taking patients who would have gone to Mercy had there been room.  Mercy Joplin vowed just after the tornado to keep all of its employees on the payroll if they wanted to stay.  They did that, in part, through job sharing.  Mercy employees worked (and continue to work) at other hospitals—some as far away as Oklahoma City and St. Louis—others at Mercy Carthage and Freeman in Joplin, helping to meet the increased demand for services created by the drastically reduced number of beds at Mercy Joplin. 

Pulsipher says around 300 employees left after the storm out of about 1800.  Currently, they’re only bringing back the most critically needed positions…

"We have some pretty significant losses, you know, the next two years, you know, when your revenues are way down but your expenses stay the same it's a challenge to balance that ledger."

Although the storm was a tragedy, and the old building was destroyed, Pulsipher focuses on the positives…

"You know, we're gonna have opportunities from this storm that we would have struggled with for years.  The old building, as much as we loved it, was, you know, that was built for care in the 1960s and it's nothing like--so we were gonna struggle with that facility for a long time.  Now we've got a chance to build a brand new facility, so we feel really blessed in that way, but we're also, you know, it's been a mix of emotions I would say, but generally optimistic.  We're optimistic about our future.  We're optimistic about the way we're working better with our regional hospitals.  It's pretty cool the way it's coming together, I think."

Some services were unable to be offered at Mercy Joplin after the tornado hit, but they were restored after the latest Mercy Joplin opened—we’ll tell you more about that as KSMU’s Sense of Community continues this afternoon at 4:30.

For KSMU News, I’m Michele Skalicky.