St. John's Regional Medical Center was squarely in the middle of the devastating tornado that touched down in Joplin, Mo., May 22, killing at least 125 people in what is believed to be the deadliest U.S. tornado since 1953. The tornado blew out windows through the hospital and claimed the lives of at least five patients—though the cause of death is still unclear for those patients.
Wednesday morning, Gary Pulsipher, CEO of St. John's; Lynn Britton, CEO of Mercy Health System and Sean Smith, M.D., president of Mercy's physician clinic in Joplin, talked to media about the ongoing recovery. Following the tornado, 183 patients were evacuated to nearby Freeman Health System in Joplin and other Mercy hospitals in Missouri and Arkansas. St. John's officials hope to have a temporary facility up and running by Sunday.
For now, officials are still assessing the damage done to the building, and no estimates are available for the cost of rebuilding or even whether that is feasible. While no employees are known to have died in the tornado, four are still missing.
"We had a number injured and hurt as the winds blew them around," Pulsipher said.
In the midst of the ordeal, there was one stroke of good luck—or good planning. The hospital implemented its first electronic health records system May 1, and incredibly patient records are safely stored—a contrast to the horror stories of lost paper records during Hurricane Katrina.
For now, the hospital's medical staff is operating from a nearby command center, Smith said. And ever so slowly, they're transitioning from triage to more normal, day-to-day patient care.
"At first, we were treating trauma victims from the tornado. Now we're seeing patients with chronic medical conditions," Smith said, noting that some patients lost medications during the tornado or found themselves without transportation to receive treatment. "We've been taking care of everything from runny noses all the way to cardiac arrest."
Joplin is no stranger to tornadoes—in fact, the area was hit by a 2008 Mother's Day tornado that claimed 22 lives. Smith pointed out that the hospital coped fairly well with that incident, and practices tornado drills several times a year with the Jasper County EMS. Preparation, of course, is insufficient for dealing with an event of this magnitude, Smith said.
"We think that's going to get us prepared," Smith said. "It doesn't. You never know."