JOPLIN, Mo. (KSNF) – When the night was still, in the middle of a pitch black abyss, a beacon of light rose above the darkness.
With one hospital incapacitated by one of the deadliest tornados ever, another did everything it could to stay functioning even though it had experienced $1.7 million in damage of its own.
The lines were blurred as doctors, nurses, and staff from Joplin’s two main hospitals came together at just one facility while hundreds of injured people lined the hallways.
“When I walked in, it was something unlike I had ever seen before,” recalls Paula Baker, Freeman Health System President & CEO.
“You prepare for it, but you’re always preparing for something that you think most likely will never happen,” says Daniel Caylor, Freeman Health System Director of Facilities Management.
Many of the medical staff to respond that fateful night knew this was going to be different.
Former Medical Oncology & Pediatric Director (current Freeman Neosho Chief Operating Officer) Renee Denton leaned over to her husband Bob, who was the former Emergency Trauma Center Director, as they made their way to the hospital that night.
“This is going to be really bad, isn’t it?” asked Renee.
Bob answered, “I said, ‘Well, we’re probably going to have to be here for a while.'”
“As far as you could see, there was people in every direction, crushing their way in, trying to get in,” says Caylor.
Bob Denton recalls, “There were people everywhere. In the front lobby, spilling into the outside parking lot, the driveways, and so forth.”
“Within about 15 minutes, we had 100 patients show up. And that tells you a great deal, when you have one patient showing up every 45 seconds, that’s something you can’t understand until you see it,” says Skip Harper, Freeman Health System Environmental Health Safety Officer.
“We did 22 life-saving surgeries within the first 12 hours. We had to access blood. We had to get all the patients triaged that were coming to the hospital. We had over 1500 people in our hospital that night,” Baker says.
Renee Denton adds, “It was shoulder to shoulder, people everywhere.”
Everyone – and they mean everyone – got right to work.
“We set up mobile surgery centers, we set up mobile triage areas. It as all about getting our team together and doing what they do best,” says Harper.
“There was emotional support being provided. There were people doing jobs that in any other circumstance, they would not have been doing,” says Renee Denton.
That includes Renee, herself who was helping her team care for even seriously injured patients in a make-shift room set up inside Freeman Health System.
She says, “I asked the incident commander, I said I think if I could take 4 or 5 of my medical nurses with me we could open up an area in the conference rooms and begin taking care of patients.”
The hospital’s now-President and CEO found herself in the temporary morgue holding the hands of those who were dying.
Baker recalls, “I didn’t want them to die without some comfort and without a human touch. And so, to sit there and hold their hand, give them (I hope) that comfort and reassurance that someone was there with them.”
Ask any of them, and they’ll tell you what they remember most that night:
“There were some horrific injuries and some that weren’t as bad, but people were surprisingly pretty quiet,” says Baker.
“It was quiet. Eerily quiet. There wasn’t people screaming, or people yelling. No, they were just in a state of shock,” says Caylor.
“We probably at one time had about 70 people in the conference rooms, 40 of which were patients, and it was as quiet as it is in this room right now,” says Caylor.
Step outside and you might have heard the hum of the hospital’s generators instead.
The Director of Facilities and his team made sure the hospital stayed running in the night.
“That night it was so dark in Joplin because the electricity was out in this whole end of town. But, we glowed in the night from our generator power,” says Baker.
“I remember being up on the tower and looking out over the entire city of Joplin, and it was completely black. But yet, here Freeman was lit,” says Caylor.
“When we were glowing through that dark, dark night, we know that was a Beacon of Hope for people. We knew they’d see the light of Freeman and know that we’re here for them and we’re going to be there for them throughout the duration of this catastrophe,” says Caylor.