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AARC Follows Aftermath of Joplin Tornado

May 24, 2011

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The entire nation was shocked to learn of the massive devastation caused by the EF5 tornado that ripped through Joplin, MO, on Sunday evening, leaving a swath of destruction covering about 30% of the city and causing at least 122 deaths and 750 injuries. Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for as well.

The AARC has activated its Disaster Relief Fund to help support members in the affected area, and we’ve also been networking with our members in Missouri to learn more about how this monster storm affected respiratory therapists and their health care facilities.

Joplin Tornado

Widespread Devastation

As most people know, the tornado struck St. John’s Regional Medical Center especially hard, killing five ICU patients on ventilators and one visitor to the facility.

"Our thoughts and prayers are with all those affected by this disaster," says Bill Lamb, BS, RRT, CPFT, FAARC, who is currently serving as speaker of the AARC House of Delegates and hails from Wentzville, MO. "St. John's Hospital was damaged by the tornado and was evacuated to other hospitals, and respiratory therapists played an important role in this response."

AARC member Heather Wade, RRT-NPS, a center manager at Lincare, was driving home from a trip when the tornado struck and arrived only to find that her house had been leveled by the storm. “We were late getting home from out of town, and that is a blessing,” she told us. “The devastation is unreal.” She and her family pitched in to help with the recovery Monday morning, digging a neighbor out of the rubble.

“I am sorry to say he didn’t make it,” she said.

Joplin Tornado

Some of her daughter’s things have been found as far as 25 miles away, but the family continues to cope with the help of family and friends. “My RT and work family has been great,” says Wade, “offering to help in any way possible.”

MSRC quick to act

Lisa Newcomer, RRT, CPFT, president of the Missouri Society for Respiratory Care (MSRC), lost no time getting an email out to all of the MSRC members in Joplin, informing them that the AARC’s disaster fund was being activated for their use and has also been using social media sites like Facebook to connect with Joplin members.

“Our hearts, our thoughts, and our prayers are pouring out to the RT community in the whole southwest end of the state,” she says, noting that not only has the tornado affected Joplin, but also hospitals in nearby cities that are taking in the displaced hospital patients and victims.

Joplin Tornado

Her own hospital, Saint Francis Medical Center in Cape Girardeau, has sent sterile supplies to Joplin and is prepared to take patients if the call comes in. University of Missouri Health Care sent two ambulances with medical crews to Joplin shortly after the tornado struck, and those crews worked throughout Sunday night and Monday to assist with search, rescue, and recovery efforts.

Newcomer says the Missouri Hospital Association is reporting that Disaster Medical Assistance Teams have been sent to the city as well, and health care personnel and security workers have been deployed from Kansas City to provide relief and assistance to Freeman Health System, operator of the other major hospital in Joplin, and CoxHealth, the hospital in Springfield that has taken on the surge of patients.

Others step up to help too

In Texas, AARC member Michael Nibert, BSRT, RRT, is working with his local blood center to organize a blood drive in his community of Bryan-College Station to honor victims of the disaster.

“The local news station has agreed to help get out the notice to the public and I am waiting on a return phone call from the Bryan Eagle newspaper,” he told us on Tuesday.

The Invacare Corporation is doing its part by donating medical equipment to assist with the relief efforts through the Friends of Disabled Adults and Children. The company is sending oxygen cylinders, mattresses, crutches, and other supplies.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to those families affected by the tornado in Joplin," says Brian Ellacott, vice president and general manager of commercial operations for North America at Invacare.

Picking up the pieces

Holly Dodds, MEd, RRT, AE-C, who works at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in St. Louis, a sister hospital to the severely damaged St. John’s Regional Hospital in Joplin, says her facility is on standby at this point. “Part of the problem is that there isn’t a hospital to work at—the one across the street is where some residents of Joplin were taken. I’m assuming that some RTs have lost both a home and a place to work.”

The Missouri emergency response network for RTs that she belongs to is on standby as well, as officials continue to assess the need for assistance. “They are stressing not to self-deploy to go help.”

The Joplin tornado brings up recent memories for Dodds, who helped out after the tornado that hit Maryland Heights, MO, about a month ago. “It is hard to explain the emotion that can overwhelm you when you are picking up the one-inch pieces of what is left of someone’s life,” she says. “A teddy bear. A picture. One fancy dress. A picture without a frame. In fact, the whole scene is an amazing landscape of what doesn’t belong where it is. You look at the devastation and your brain can’t absorb what it is seeing.” 

RTs are there for RTs

Dodds knows her colleagues in Joplin are no doubt going through the same array of emotions right now as they sort through damage to their own homes and help friends, family, and their hospitals do the same. But she says she feels they are blessed to least have their professional organizations in their corner. “Our state society immediately sent out a notice early yesterday to RTs letting them know that we have a fund to help with financial needs. We have such good people in our profession.”

MSRC President Lisa Newcomer agrees, noting that she continues to receive emails and phone calls from therapists all over the state, and indeed, the whole country, who want to help. “If anything good has come out of this, it is RTs pulling together.”