In the News

Eyewitness: In Their Own Words

May 26, 2011
Updated June 7, 2011

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These are stories sent in by members talking about what they have seen:

From Gary Dillard, MA, RRT-NPS-SDS, CPFT, RPSGT, Sylva, NC—

While the fine respiratory department at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin has a humble spirit about them, I think it is worth mentioning the wonderful service they and their colleagues performed on Sun., May 22, after the Joplin tornado. (Editor’s Note: See a photo of them in the Joplin photo gallery.)

The respiratory, nursing, and radiology faculty, along with their senior students who could make it, provided life saving measures immediately after the tornado. Since one of Joplin's main hospitals had been destroyed, the third floor of the Health Sciences building at Missouri Southern was transformed into a triage/hospital setting. Faculty and senior respiratory students provided aid to the injured. There were four physicians as well. 

The third floor provided many necessary beds due to the wonderfully supplied health science labs. A pharmacist was also on duty to assist with medication. 

They did an OUTSTANDING job, despite the fact that some of their own students were hard hit by the storm. One RT student lost his home while another married a week after the disaster. Her story was featured on CBS and CNN, and in this article in the Joplin Globe. 

From Christopher Cox, RRT, Orientation Coordinator, St. John’s Mercy—

On Sunday, May 22, at 5:15 p.m., my family and I climbed under our house due to the tornado sirens. I rarely take shelter in a storm. Usually, I enjoy watching the clouds from my front porch, but this time it was different. I could feel the energy in the air. I inspected my house when it was over. We had about 3–4 inch hail. But there was little to no damage.

We were late for dinner at my parents, who live a few minutes away, so we went to eat. It was about an hour after the tornado hit that I stopped to watch the weather. I watched in horror as a gentlemen from the Weather Channel stood in the middle of broken 2 x 4s, begging for medical help. In the background I saw my hospital. The hospital I had worked at for 12 years had taken a direct hit. Sheets were blowing out the windows like ghosts. I immediately had tears in my eyes thinking of my co-workers. I ran home and drove straight to work.

About six blocks from the hospital nothing was recognizable. Police were at every intersection. After showing my badge to one cop he yelled at me, “Park and run!”

I drove near the hospital and ran to the Medical Office Building. The smell of natural gas was thick in the air. I heard someone yell that they were afraid the building would explode.

The main hospital had been evacuated to the Medical Office Building. Patients were huddled together in dark rooms with nurses and flashlights. Everyone was quiet and wide-eyed. Patients had cuts, blood, and glass all over their bodies.

Joplin High School buses started arriving. We took patients and started filling up school buses. The critical were taken in the back of pick-up trucks to Freeman Hospital across the street. The more stable were taken in buses to any hospital that had room, or to the Memorial Hall Center.

I will never forget how well everyone worked together. Nurses, techs, and therapists were calm and directing patients to the nearest truck, bus, or van. One hundred and eighty patients were evacuated out of the main hospital in under 90 minutes. They were all gone off campus by 11 p.m.

The tornado hit on Sunday. On Tuesday I got a call to come to the hospital on Wednesday. The State Disaster Medical Assistance Team (DMAT) was in Branson, MO, the week before the tornado. They had planned an earthquake drill for May 15 (one week before the tornado hit). This date had been planned in advance two years earlier.

They had drilled on the Mobile Medical Unit (MMU) the week before and had just set it up. They tore it down on Saturday and brought it to us on Sunday. I believe this was divine planning. Sunday-Wednesday they set up an emergency triage off I-44. On Wednesday they started setting up our temporary hospital. This is the same hospital used in the military field—Iraq, Afghanistan, and after Hurricane Katrina.

They had a 60-bed hospital set up in three days! The DMAT people trained me on Friday and I began training all our staff on Saturday. Training consisted mainly on safety: weather, fire, and trip hazards. (Editor's Note: You can see photos of the building of the Mobile Medical Unit on our slide show page.)

Our doors opened on Sunday, and by Sunday afternoon we had our first surgery. It was minor, but a surgery all the same.

Over the next several days we were seeing 50-70 ER patients a day! Staff were grateful for being able to work and see patients again. The tornado was behind us and our patients in front of us again. The RT department was back to providing care—off oxygen tanks. RTs salvaged BiPAP machines and ventilators. It was a good sight to see our Drager vents again.

Mercy, our hospital sponsor, could not have been better to us through the whole disaster. They assured everyone they would continue to have a job with Mercy. Co-workers would continue to get paid. Co-workers were being called to check on safety. Assistance was available for housing, food, clothes, and personal needs.

Joplin will take years to rebuild. It will take 2–3 years to rebuild our hospital, but it will be nice to have it brand new. Assistance is appreciated. Please contact the Sisters of Mercy if you would like to help our patient care staff and hospital rebuild.

From Lori Schiska
“Prepare for Condition Grey”—the announcement came over the loudspeaker at St. John’s the week prior to the tornado. This wasn’t a drill—the weather had turned ugly fast—it looked like night outside.

“Condition grey” was our code for severe weather. The staff at St. John’s had the opportunity to practice the routine. As the storm passed by, one of the respiratory therapists commented that “surely the hospital would never be hit by a tornado.” Little did we know that less than one week later our hospital would stand in ruins after a direct hit by an EF5 tornado.

I was at home the night of May 22. The storm had come through and we had lost power. My husband and I were still in awe of the horrific hail storm we had just experienced—the yard was littered with hailstones, some as large as baseballs. We searched for a radio and finally found some batteries that would work and turned it on to see if the worst of the weather was over.

We started hearing that Joplin had been hit, but we had no idea the extent of the damage. We then started getting phone calls—my daughter from Oklahoma City calling to report the devastation she was already seeing on national TV, my mom texting me that patients were being evacuated.

My husband headed in to the university where he works, which is on the northwest side of Joplin. He had received a call that they were setting the Health Science Building up as a triage center. I headed in the opposite direction towards the hospital—fearful of what I was going to find.

Traffic was bumper to bumper as I tried to make my way to St. John’s. I finally found a lot to park in about six blocks north of the hospital. As I walked toward St. John’s, the grim reality of what had just happened was evident all around me.

As I got to the emergency room entrance, the respiratory staff who had been on duty began coming out of the hospital. All patients had been evacuated from the main facility and the staff was finally able to make it out to safety.

It was nothing short of a miracle that 183 patients and all the staff made it out alive that night. I can’t describe how proud I am of the job the therapists and all the other caregivers did that night. Other respiratory therapists had heard of the disaster and came to provide assistance at the triage center set up at Memorial Hall, as well as at the one set up across from the hospital.

A week has passed since the tornado hit the Joplin and Mercy community. Five respiratory therapists lost their homes as a result of the tornado—and another eight lost their cars. The outpouring of love, prayers, concern and offers of assistance have been remarkable. I am blessed to manage this group of therapists and to be associated with the other respiratory therapists who serve the Joplin community in their respective facilities. We have a long road to recovery ahead—but we’ve made great strides already. I am “Proud to be Mercy.”

From Jeff Keener
I am the director of respiratory services for the entire Freeman Health System. I was not in the path of the storm; however, I was unable to reach the hospital until Monday a.m. I spent about four hours trying to reach the hospital…I had to go through the heart of the destruction to get there. The damage was bad enough…trees down everywhere, houses in a pile of rubble, etc. But the huge number of people who were walking or running through the streets, obviously in shock, was even more disturbing.

Our West hospital is the close to St. John’s. The East hospital and the Neosho hospital were not affected; however, East suffers from the same water issues the rest of the community now endures. The city is under a boil order indefinitely. West sustained some roof damage to the original structure.

Freeman Health System has an overall external disaster plan that is subdivided by department. RTs ensure that available ventilators/supplies are ready to disperse and they help move patients to secure areas, away from windows, etc. In addition to the overhead and pager notifications of such an emergency, all employees are automatically notified when we go on disaster status by an automated call and respond system.

Our ED treated almost 500 patients in the hours after the tornado struck. About 100 of these were patients evacuated from St. John’s. Freeman RTs/nurses, etc. helped St. John’s with their evacuation. The tornado hit at our shift change, and the day shift stayed most of the night to assist the night shift with their efforts in the ED, ICUs, and elsewhere.

There were two RTs from out of state who showed up Monday morning to help. Each worked a shift for us that day. One came from Grand Island, NE, and the other works in Tulsa, OK. I don’t have their names right now…

One of my RTs was visiting a relative with her mother at the St. John’s CVICU when the tornado struck the building. After seeing one room catch on fire and a person sucked out a window, she and her mother carried the relative/patient down a stairwell. Eventually they were freed to the outside by fireman, as the water level in the stairwell was climbing…very scary!

Freeman has five RTs who lost their homes and cars, others whose family members sustained similar loss, one who lost an uncle, and many more who had damage from the storm. In all there were at least 12 RTs I know of between Freeman, St. John’s, and elsewhere who lost everything they owned…but no casualties!

We have been meeting our community’s health care needs since hour one and will continue to do so. Plans are underway to handle the expected influx of in and out patients from the loss of St. John’s. Departmentally, we expect our volumes to increase as well, and we are making plans for that. We have been inundated with help, and offers to help, from so many vendors, the AARC, MSRC, and others. It’s very heart warming to know how generous and loving the RT community is!

Greg Hunn
I have been a respiratory therapist for 35 years. I work at Freeman Health Center in Joplin MO and I have to tell you that there are some amazing stories about the Respiratory Therapist Heroes working in our department and also who work at Landmark (Vent Rehab Hospital located a few blocks from Freeman)

There are Ryan, Toby and Matt working at Landmark (Toby is the director of respiratory), who saw the tornado slam into St. Johns and took off and ran straight in and started rescuing patients, in an unstable building, with no regard for personal safety. They were joined by a man, Danny (who had lost his house but had a 4-wheel drive truck), and an unemployed nurse to rescue several patients, whom they drove to the ER at Freeman, which was the disaster staging area.

At the same time another therapist, Lyndon, was at home. As he watched this tragedy unfold he called the shift supervisor to see if he should come in. She had responded that “nothing official had been said, so don’t come in.” But that wasn’t good enough for Lyndon—he jumped in his truck drove to St. Johns and started helping pull patients out of the building. They were actually coding one of the patients as they carried him down several flights of stairs, in the dark, though ankle deep water and debris. He was responsible for the rescue of several of St. Johns patients.

I have always been amazed at the lack of respect and recognition we get as therapists. At the same time, I have always been one to point out the amazing accomplishments of the respiratory therapists I have worked with through the years. I am humbled and proud to call myself a respiratory therapist, and equally as humbled and proud to be around these respiratory therapists who are my co-workers and friends.

From Sherry Whiteman and Chalaine Bell
I watched the tornado on the KSN weather cam via my television. As soon as the storm passed, my husband and I went separate ways into Joplin.

The devastation was unimaginable. Tons of gas leaks, lines down everywhere, people everywhere. No one quite knew what to do. We finally stopped when we reached Greenbriar nursing home. One of my coworkers was there doing triage. We stayed and triaged at Greenbriar.

I was climbing into the back of a truck to place a neck brace on a patient before they transported. We were using anything we could find as blankets, or backboards, etc. There were several backboards without straps, so we had to use silk tape to strap down the patients onto backboards for transport. Remarkably, everyone was relatively calm and collected. No crying or panic. Injured people were asking me if I was okay!

After awhile, I headed to Freeman (hospital in Joplin) to see if we could help. I was stunned by the number of patients when we got there. Patients everywhere, waiting to be helped.

In the waiting room, I saw a young girl in her graduation gown and cap. She was very calm and standing next to a parent or grandparent holding a bandage against their head. That broke my heart.

Others’ Stories submitted by Chalaine Bell
One therapist immediately drove from Airport Drive toward the hospital after the storm. She had to park quite a ways away and started walking. She happened upon an inebriated man who had a severed artery and was very belligerent. She finally got him to calm down and she tied off his artery and directed him where to go.

The tornado hit at shift change that night for the RT department, so many RTs were there. In one unit, a therapist was in a patient room when she saw the blackness and heard someone shouting “Get down!” She climbed beneath that patient’s bed and held on for dear life. When it was over, it was pitch black. She managed to get out from under the bed, stumble around and accidentally found a flashlight. She found some oxygen tanks and was able to get some help from visitors that were in the unit when the tornado hit. They took 3 of the patients off the vents (which weren’t working) and started bagging them. Somehow they managed to get those patients out of the rooms and down and out of the building.

Near that same unit, right when the tornado hit, a nurse was out checking the waiting room to make sure no one was still by the windows. The tornado hit and busted out the windows. She turned and took off running, slipped, fell, and the tornado sucked the shoes right off her feet!
Up on the seventh floor, as well as most of the other floors, visitors and staff were absolutely amazed in the evacuation efforts. Visitors were helping carry/move patients down the stairwells to take cover, and also to get the building evacuated. The visitors stayed and helped until the whole building was evacuated! 

In OB, the nurses and parents were heroes. They laid themselves on top of those newborns to keep them safe!

It was amazing how regular people immediately stepped up and used their own trucks and equipment and started taking care of the injured. I only ever saw one person crying. That’s it. Not like you always see on TV from other disasters of people staring and crying. Everyone kicked it in gear and took care of each other. I am so proud to be a member of that community!