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Severe weather had been expected on May 22nd in the Joplin area, but no one could have imagined that the deadliest single twister in U.S. history would descend on the town that evening. Those on duty at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin were keeping an eye on the weather. They likely couldn’t have believed it, if they’d had any premonition, that an EF5 tornado would soon slam into their building. One of those at the hospital that day was Rod Pace, manager of the St. John’s Medflight Program. He talked about the experience on a recent windy day while on a new helipad that was poured soon after the tornado hit.
He had gone into work that afternoon to do payroll after spending time in the Springfield area with his family at a basketball tournament.
When Pace left his home a few miles north of the hospital, tornadoes were reported on the ground in Altamont and Parson, Kansas. He expected those storms to move along Highway 71 and to the north end of Joplin…
"When I got the payroll done I went to leave. I was riding a motorcycle that day, and in the prior three weeks I had ridden that thing home in the rain three times, and I wasn't in a hurry to leave that day. I was going to go to the gym and meet my oldest son. I go walking out the door, literally walked out the door--I'm not even sure the door had closed behind me, and it just started raining, and it wasn't a soft rain, I mean, it started raining hard, so I went back inside."
The day shift pilot had been keeping an eye on the weather. When the storm started moving in, which Pace says on radar looked like a pop-up thunderstorm, they went to the back doors to watch it move in. Pace grew up in Central Kansas and knew the signs of a tornado approaching…
"We were all three standing there watching it rain. The rain slowed down, almost stopped, and you see the trees about five blocks away start to swirl. They weren't blowing in the wind like they are today, I mean, they were swirling like they're in a blender. One of the pilots noticed it and said, 'you know, that wasn't there,' so he went back in to look at the radar again, actually, both of them did, and then you see--I remember looking at the flag, and it's blowing--you know, it's pointing to the north-northeast as it should be with a storm cell coming, you know, up the I-44 corridor. That flag spun immediately to the west as I was looking at it and then you see the wall of water coming."
The three went into the crew room—an interior room of St. John’s. Pace says, when the tornado slammed into the hospital, it felt like the building was breathing.
Glass, metal and wood came thru the sheet rock in the walls. And then water began pouring in—both from rain coming in from where the roof had been ripped away...
"The ceiling tiles started to fall, the gridwork that held them up started to fall and then it stopped just as quick as it started, and then it just got quiet. It was eerily quiet."
That’s when Pace says the disaster plan kicked in. He and his two pilots headed to the ER to do what they could to help. When he was sure everyone there was safe, he began helping out in other areas. After hospital staff evacuated 183 patients in just an hour and a half, Pace went back thru the building with a MO Highway Patrol team to make sure everyone was out. It was a dark and eerie scene with water and destroyed equipment everywhere. The Medflight helicopter was laying on its side on the helipad—destroyed.
In all, five people (both patients and visitors) died in the hospital that night. Pace says the number would have likely been much higher if disaster plans had not been in place and practiced regularly.
Today, St. John’s in Joplin is operating out of a portable field hospital—dubbed Mercy M*A*S*H—that was set up and open by 7 am one week after the tornado hit. It’s a series of tents that can withstand 100 mph winds.
St. John’s physician, Dr. Sean Smith, says operations are going smoothly…
"Staff are grateful to have a building that they can actually function as a hospital. It's fully capable. It's got a 20-bed ER, 40 in-patient beds, two OR's, cath lab, CT, MRI, x-ray, pharmacy and lab, ICU, a post-anesthetic care unit. It's a functional hospital just, obviously, on a much much smaller scale than what we had."
Mercy continues to pay St. John’s employees who aren’t able to return to work, though some are working in other hospitals through a talent share program and some are working in the portable field hospital but with different work schedules…
"Staff are rotating through doing what they can, and in places like nursing that we might have overabundance right now they're working shorter shifts, working six hours, so they're not in the field hospital for as long a duration, and that way they can share the burden."
The hospital expects to move into a modular facility within the next 8 weeks or so. Within six months, they hope to be in a fully-built component hospital with 100 to 200 beds. A new permanent structure is planned and hopes to be open in the spring of 2014. Four or five sites are being considered for the new hospital…
"Trying to decide which will be the best for our hospital with our space needs and with our market needs. At this point I just know that it won't be where our old hospital was, 'cause, with both hospitals being in such close proximity, it was just by a blessing from God that both hospitals did not get destroyed that night, then Joplin would have had nothing operational that night."
Freeman Hospital is only about a quarter of a mile away from St. John’s. The nine-story St. John’s hospital, which was hit by the tornado, will be torn down.
Meanwhile, Rod Pace tries not to dwell too much on the three things he lost the night of the tornado—the place he worked, the helicopter and his motorcycle. He counts his blessings instead…
"I choose to not be a victim for a lot of reasons. I'm a competitor. I hate to lose, and I don't think we lost this time."
He says the hospital will one day be back—bigger and better than ever.
For KSMU and the Sense of Community Series, I’m Michele Skalicky.