Joplin Remembered: Heroes of the Hospital

(Joplin, MO) -- No one could have anticipated just how far the May 22, 2011 storm would tear into the lives of Kelli Bigando, Dottie Bringle and everyone at St. John's Medical Center.

"We could see the storm coming from the west," said  Kelli Bigando, executive director of patient care services for Mercy Hospital Joplin.

"One of my staff sent me a picture of the helicopter on its side," said Dottie Bringle, COO/CNO of Mercy in Joplin. "And then, I knew."

Bringle was in Atlanta when she learned the tornado had hit Joplin. She was heading to Ireland.

"I went to the desk and told them, I'm the Chief Operating Officer in Joplin," Bringle said. "I've got to go home, you've got to help me get home."

Bringle touched down in Kansas City the next morning. By then, the hospital was in all-out crisis mode. Patients had evacuated. Doctors and nurses were taking in the wounded. They were prepared for disasters, but no drill could fully ready them for the damage the May 22 tornado had caused.

"All those plans kind of go out the door," said Bigando.

"I needed to see. I needed to see for myself what happened and the devastation and destruction was unimaginable, and when I got here there were police lines where they weren't letting us through," said Bringle. "And just to be honest, I told them immediately: you do not understand, that's my hospital. They let me through."

Bringle found the shell of her hospital. The patients were already in another part of town. Memorial Hall turned into the closest thing to St. John's hospital the night of the storm.

"At first very limited supplies," said Bigando. "We're treating patients on tables or on the floor, they were bringing patients, victims in on doors, mattresses." 

The emotional pain was hitting the staff.

"We didn't know the status of our coworkers," Bigando said. "So they had friends, which are basically family, that they didn't know if they were okay or not."

"And when I walked in Memorial Hall, they looked at me and they just, several of them just started crying," said Bringle. "And they said 'where have you been? We didn't know where you where.' And when I walked by them, my daughter told me 'I head them say: 'it's going to be okay because Dottie's here now'.  That warmed me so much, I can't tell you. And I was determined at that point that whatever needed to happen is what we would do to get us back on our feet. Because of that staff, they're heroes, they are absolute heroes. In 90 minutes they evacuated that hospital and they never stopped providing care, never."

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