Matt Oden, a registered nurse, was working the emergency department at Brookwood Medical Center in Alabama shortly after 4 p.m. last Wednesday when word came in that a monster tornado had just ripped through nearby Tuscaloosa and that a series of twisters were knifing eastward toward Birmingham.
Without yet knowing the extent of the devastation the storms had caused—and were at that moment continuing to cause—Brookwood's ED staff immediately maneuvered into crisis mode. Shifts were extended, additional clinicians called, medical supplies and other necessities checked and rechecked.
Then the casualties began to trickle in. Most of the earliest victims had relatively minor injuries, primarily cuts and fractures from flying debris. "But two of the first patients were an old couple," Oden said. "They found the lady a few hundred yards from her house. She had cuts all over and had to get sewn up. And her husband was beat up pretty bad, too."
It was just an inkling of the horror to come.
In no time, hospitals across Alabama were racing to keep up with a flood of patients suffering everything from scrapes and broken bones to serious traumatic injuries of the head or internal organs. By Thursday, the Alabama Hospital Association estimated 1,500 people had already been seen by hospitals in the state and that 226 had been admitted.
"It was controlled chaos," Loring Rue, chief of trauma care at UAB Hospital, told the Birmingham News. Jeremy Rogers, ED medical director at Baptist Princeton Medical Center, told the paper, "We would get ambulances that had two, three or four family members that were piled in. The ambulances would just load them up and bring them all in."
Elsewhere, I heard stories of injured children found amid the rubble who were so young they couldn't even tell hospital staff their names. There was no way of knowing immediately who or where their parents were, or even if they had survived the weather's rampage.
While some hospitals were damaged in the storms, all continued to operate. And at every hospital in the tornado zone, staff members did their jobs as they do every day, mending wounds and saving lives. They did so heroically, even when they could not always know what awaited them back home.
When Matt Oden finished his extended 15-hour shift at 10 p.m., he returned to his hometown of Pleasant Grove to find his own residence in tact but the neighborhood in ruins. He joined friends in "clearing roads out, cutting trees and getting people out of there."
It wasn't until daybreak that the scope of what had transpired became evident. "The neighborhood was unrecognizable," Oden said. "It was like a bomb went off. It felt like Ground Zero." The surreality was heightened by the presence of the National Guard armed with machine guns and manning checkpoints to make sure only authorized residents were allowed in.
Though all of Oden's family members escaped unharmed, there were "multiple deaths" in his community. His grandmother's house and his own childhood home were "devastated." For four days after the storms, Oden and his friends spent 12 to 14 hours a day attacking the destruction, though they are fully aware that it will take months if not years before their neighborhood is back to normal.
Nearly a week after the onslaught, he describes the mood in Pleasant Grove as "50-50. Some people are happy just to be alive. The rest are still in shock."
When I spoke with Matt Oden this morning, he was back in the ED. In the midst of their own tragic realities, he and his colleagues at hospitals throughout Alabama are helping others to heal and cope.