St. John's moves to recover from killer tornado in Joplin, Mo.

June 15, 2011

Wounded hospital staff tended to terrified patients

St. John's Regional Medical Center, battered by a killer super tornado that churned through Joplin, Mo., on May 22, is continuing to treat patients from a temporary facility. And Sisters of Mercy Health System has pledged to rebuild the hospital and services.

"The Sisters of Mercy came to this community in 1885 and opened the hospital in 1896," said Lynn Britton, Mercy's president and chief executive. "They've been through hard times before — perhaps nothing quite on the scale of this — but our commitment to Joplin remains strong."

Britton pledged this while standing outside the nine-story, 370-bed hospital that took a direct hit from a tornado as it blasted a wide six-mile path through Joplin. At press time, authorities said the storm had killed at least 134 people, including five critically ill St. John's patients and one hospital visitor.

The tornado damaged almost one-third of Joplin, a city of 50,150 people in southwest Missouri. Local officials estimate that more than 8,000 homes and other structures were destroyed or heavily damaged.

The empty hospital now towers over a wide wasteland of debris. Most of its windows are shattered, the interior is in shambles, chunks of roof are gone and exterior walls are cracked. Its medical helicopter, shorn of rotors, had been tossed amidst the piles of mangled vehicles in the parking lot.

After evacuating their 183 patients, St. John's staff moved to a Catholic high school and concert center downtown to continue caring for community members, and some physicians continue to operate from temporary quarters until more permanent offices can be established.

Hospital administrators are working from temporary headquarters at the Hammons Convention Center, where they also provide counseling and information to the hospital's 2,200 employees. All staff will remain on the payroll while Mercy rebuilds.

Exactly one week post-tornado, at 5:45 p.m., the exact time of the tornado, St. John's held a blessing ceremony for a 60-bed portable hospital that is providing emergency care, surgery, lab work and other services on its campus. Patients with more serious conditions are being referred to or transferred to other Mercy hospitals, mainly St. John's Hospital in Springfield, Mo., 70 miles to the east.

Within three to six months the temporary Joplin hospital, named St. John's Mercy Hospital, will be replaced by a more permanent facility that will serve until a new hospital can be built. At press time, Mercy had not decided whether to rebuild on its current campus or elsewhere in Joplin.

Heroic staff
The tornado produced winds of more than 200 mph. The National Weather Service called it a "multi-vortex tornado," meaning that two or more smaller tornadoes were spinning within its squat, black cone and adding to its ferocious power. The path of destruction was as wide as three-fourths of a mile.

It was the eighth deadliest single tornado on record in the U.S., and it hit during a wild spring of tornadoes in the Midwest and South.

Through its intercom system, the hospital broadcast "execute condition gray" — its code for a major weather emergency. Staff members were hustling patients from rooms into hallways when everyone's ears popped in the sudden drop in air pressure. Just as suddenly, the halls and rooms were filled with flying debris, shattered glass, furniture, medical supplies, even chunks of ceilings and interior walls.

One surgical assistant threw himself against the door to an operation in progress. Another worker dove across a cancer patient to protect her from shattering glass.

In his public remarks from the campus three days after the storm, Britton praised St. John's staff members for their heroic care of the hospital's patients and injured residents who went there, many on foot, for treatment. Gary Pulsipher, St. John's president and chief executive, lives five blocks north of the destruction line, and he reached the hospital within minutes of the storm's strike.

"It was incredible to see their dedication," Pulsipher said of the staff. "Some of them had been injured, yet they checked into disaster mode and took care of their patients. Physicians, nurses and others who were off duty came to work. They knew they were needed."

Pulsipher said some of the 180 employees on duty suffered cuts from flying glass and debris, but none was severely injured.

Sr. Miriam Nolan, RSM, is a board member of Mercy's sponsor, Mercy Health Ministry. She said more than 100 hospital employees suffered significant personal loss, including homes and vehicles, in the tornado. She said Mercy will support them.

"As a ministry of the Catholic Church, we believe in compassionate care for our patients and our coworkers," Sr. Nolan said. "They are part of the wounded. We will walk with them."

Here to stay
Pulsipher said the tornado wrecked the hospital's emergency generators, knocking out life-support systems as well as lights. He said medical staff tried to save the patients who died, all of whom had been in critical condition before the storm hit. "They tried, but it was a very tough night," he said.

In darkness and driving rain, workers moved patients to an emergency triage center in a street out front. Ambulances, school buses and even a few pickup trucks were used to transport patients to Freeman Health System, a largely undamaged hospital 1.5 miles away, and to hospitals in nearby cities.

Among them was St. John's Hospital in Springfield, which received more than 20 patients from its sister hospital in Joplin and treated another 40 victims of the storm.

Caregivers established treatment centers at McAuley Catholic High School, two miles north of St. John's in Joplin, and at Memorial Hall, a concert hall downtown. Doctors, nurses and others from Mercy hospitals in its four-state area traveled to Joplin to help. (Joplin is near Kansas, Oklahoma and Arkansas.)

All told, more than 900 people sought medical treatment in Joplin and at hospitals in nearby cities for storm-related injuries.

The storm sucked X-rays and other medical records from St. John's and deposited them as far as 70 miles away. St. John's administrators asked people to mail in any records they found, but assured patients that their medical information is intact. The hospital's electronic medical records system, which went live May 1, was backed up off site.

Pulsipher estimated that it will take two to two and a half years to build a new hospital. In the meantime, St. John's will assign employees to work at the temporary hospital, at physician offices and locations in the city and at other Mercy hospitals, including St. John's in Springfield. Retaining all employees, said Britton, is "the right thing for them and the right thing for Southwest Missouri."

Pulsipher said the outpouring of support for St. John's has been tremendous. "St. John's is a big part of this community. This is a religious area, and people like the idea of a faith-based hospital. That's why we are here to stay," he said.

Help fund for St. John's
St. John's Regional Medical Center staff were among the Joplin, Mo., community members who suffered injuries and lost homes, pets and possessions in the tornado. Sisters of Mercy Health System is asking for prayers for those impacted, and the system has set up a website for people interested in assisting financially.

Online givers can specify that the funds go toward St. John's associates, or that they go where the needs are the greatest, as St. John's will be using funds earmarked in that way to support the medical needs of the Joplin community.

To contribute, visit and click on the orange "Donate Now" icon.


Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2011 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.