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Mercy Employee Moves on After the Tornado of May 2011

Michele Skalicky

In this segment of KSMU's Sense of Community Series, Michele Skalicky talks with a nurse supervisor who was working at St. John's Regional Medical Center on May 22, 2011.

In Cunningham Park not too far from where St. John’s Regional Medical Center once stood, children are playing.  There’s a lot of new playground equipment, walking trails, fountains and a Butterfly Garden and Overlook.  When you’re in the garden, you can look out to the south and see where the hospital was for more than 40 years before an EF5 tornado slammed into it, leaving it unusable.  It’s green space now—plans are to add an outdoor chapel on the site in approximately the same spot where the hospital chapel once stood.

In the lobby of the temporary hospital—which opened a few months after the tornado and after Mercy had operated out of two other facilities—the smell of popcorn fills the air as visitors are offered a treat from a popcorn machine in the corner. 

Not too far from the lobby behind a door marked “administration” is the office where nurse supervisor Judy Mills works.  She’s worked for Mercy—formerly St. John’s—since 1988.  And she was working the night the tornado hit.

She was all over the building that day.  Her office was on the third floor, but she was going around checking on the hospital’s nurses when a tornado warning was issued.  She executed Operation Gray, which is put into place when a severe thunderstorm warning or tornado warning are issued by the National Weather Service.  Mills then proceeded to go to each floor to make sure preparations were going smoothly—that curtains and doors were being closed and patients were being moved.  She was on the seventh floor when the tornado hit.

"I took cover underneath a nurse's station up on 7 East.  I came through it OK.  There was nurses, you know, with cuts and stuff as well as some patients had minor cuts and stuff, but compared with all of the stuff that was flying around, I think it was pretty miraculous that more of us didn't come out harmed than did," she said.

Mills didn’t get a chance to see the outside of the hospital until 9:30 that night—nearly four hours after the tornado hit.  She was shocked at how bad it looked—the strong winds had knocked the hospital nearly four inches off its foundation—although she said the inside was completely destroyed.

"All the ceiling tiles came down, the wiring came down, the air conditioning, all that stuff was pulled down, I mean, it was just pretty well completely destroyed.  All the windows broke, doors pulled off," she said.

Mills was amazed at the strength of the winds that night as she and her co-workers sought shelter.

"While I was on 7 and watching the things blowing around and let me tell you everything was blowing around, a big Coke machine come around the corner and flew clear down the hallway, and you'd think if it could pick up that big Coke machine that no man could move and pull it around the corner and put it down the hall, I mean, I don't know how the building stood, really," she said.

After Mills crawled out from beneath the nurses’ station, she began visiting each floor to make sure the evacuation was proceeding as it should.  Employees started asking how they could help and they were sent where they were needed.

Mills didn’t return to work until two days later when she went to Memorial Hall, which had been set up as a triage area.

"I just figured I was needed so I went over, and I didn't do much that day because they wouldn't let me do much that day, but I did, you know, what I could," she said.

Mills was with Mercy as it moved to various temporary facilities—the first was a tent hospital set up near the ruined building.  Then there was the Johnson Building and finally the Walden Building, which is the site of the current hospital until the new facility is completed next March.  She says it’s a tight fit, but they’ve managed to make it work.  She can’t wait to move into the new hospital next spring.

"I'm looking forward to it a great deal, and I think everybody is. really, not because we can't take care of patients here, but our trauma nurses don't get to do trauma--will before long but haven't been able to do it, and they're trauma junkies (laughs), I mean, that's what they were trained to do--that's what they want to do, so they'll be glad to be getting back to that , and we'll be glad to be getting back to a more open area and an area where your patients are more in a room.  These are rooms but not like the rooms," she said.

Mills says going through the tornado didn’t affect how she approaches her work.  Going through Condition Grays, she says, is just part of the job.

This afternoon at 4:30, tour the new hospital and find out about measures that have been taken to ensure the building is as safe as possible if an EF5 tornado were to hit Joplin again.