The Reality of the Unimaginable…We Will Rebuild

Note: Information taken from a media report given by St. John’s Regional Medical Center administrative personnel, emails sent to this editor, letters sent to Sisters of Mercy communities, and Mercy websites, including Mercy Health System.

It has been a time of unimaginable suffering, death and devastation in the wake of a series of tornados that have swept through the Midwest and the Plains. But in the aftermath, plans for the future already are emerging.  For St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin the Sisters of Mercy Health System, which holds responsibility for the medical center, has already announced it will rebuild.   St. John’s was evacuated after it took a direct, devastating hit from the tornado that tore through Joplin on Sunday, May 22, 2011. Despite the heroic efforts of St. John employees, five patients and one unidentified visitor lost their lives.

The President and CEO of St. John’s shared plans for a 60-bed mobile hospital that he said would be in place within the week in Joplin.  It will offer a full array of services including emergency, surgery, imaging, lab and inpatient care. It will be able to withstand 100 mile-per-hour winds.  The mobile hospital opened on May 29, one week after the disastrous tornado ripped through Joplin and directly hit the medical center.  Longer-term plans for the hospital are being discussed, and a board meeting was held during the week after the tornado to continue the planning effort.  One board member’s reflection is at the end of this article.

The Sisters of Mercy came to this community in 1885 and opened the hospital in 1896. They’ve been through hard times before – perhaps nothing quite on the magnitude of this – but their commitment and that of their co-workers at St. John’s remains strong.

St. John’s is also committed to its 2,800 employees. A command center has been established to provide information and assistance these workers. Many will be needed to carry on the work of St. John’s in the community, and positions, in the meantime, will be available to some employees at other hospitals and clinics in the Mercy health system in the surrounding area.  “We are committed to helping as many employees as possible continue with St. John’s or the larger Mercy health system,” Britton added.

Other sites of service that are open and operating include Mercy Express Care and Mercy Clinic locations in Webb City, Carthage and Neosho. Physicians and other caregivers whose offices were damaged or destroyed are rotating through these locations, and plans are underway to find additional sites of service.  The medical center’s electronic health record system, which was implemented in Joplin less than a month ago, will go back online, connecting the mobile hospital and all Mercy health system sites of service.

St. John’s is a 370-bed hospital, which sustained significant damage, and may not be salvageable.  Structural engineers have been examining the building will provide a report within a week. Mercy Village, a 60-unit senior housing development, also sustained substantial damage and was evacuated.  No residents were harmed.  Renovations to the building have been estimated to take eight months.  Residents will not be able to return until this time.  McAuley High, another, long-time Sisters of Mercy ministry, was not damaged and is being used as a triage center.

Sisters of Mercy and Mercy Associates residing in Joplin, MO, were not injured, though like many others, their homes were damaged and they are living with friends, family, or in Mercy community houses.

This photo  shows the only thing on the Joplin hospital campus that was untouched by the tornado.  Additional images of the destruction can be viewed at the health system’s album at  



One Board Member’s Reflection: 

On June 26, 2011 a special board meeting was held in Joplin to update all members of the board on the status and activities related to St. John’s Regional Medical Center. The meeting was very informative and very emotional for those who were telling the story. The stories are a source of pride for me — the stories of the heroes and heroines…Stories abound on the way they were able to focus on the patients in the face of these great odds, and in the face of uncertainty of the condition of their own families and homes…

Following the board meeting we went to the site to meet with local, State and Federal visitor’s deputy directors of HUD and Home land Security, Senators of Missouri and other state officials. This was their first stop in the several hours that they spent in Joplin.  I understand this is the group that precedes the Presidential visit and determines where and what the President will see.  [President Obama visited Joplin on Sunday, May 29].

Following this we continued our tour of the St. John’s campus. Even after having seen the pictures and listening to the news, reality is much more shocking. It was only by miracles that anyone came out of that building alive. The staff evacuated the building in the pitch dark with use of flash lights and cell phones to light their way and within 90 minutes they had evacuated 183 patients.  One of the engineers told us that after seeing the ruble and debris in the hallways, “I don’t know how they got through them to get patients out.” He described conditions in the stairwells as being full of sheet rock from the walls and every other thing imaginable.  He said even interior walls are moved and it is difficult to determine what was in that space previously.

The most remarkable story that I heard was immediately following the evacuation they had a strong smell of gas and were telling people to get as far away from the building as possible for fear of explosion.  People were running away, but some of the employees were running toward the building to see if there was anyone else who needed rescue.

We then went to Memorial Hall where health care is being provided.  They are seeing over 200 patients a day.  The spirit and organization of this make shift ministry site is most remarkable.  I spoke with people waiting to be seen and they expressed gratitude for being able to receive care, very humbling.  We continued our tour by car of the devastation.  On Range Line Road the businesses are flattened for about a mile there are not many walls standing. One cannot even determine what business was there.

We made our way to St. John’s command center which is set up at the John Q Hammons Conference Center.  Absolutely amazing work is going on here.  Every kind of assistance that St. John’s employees need is being provided, enough to keep body and spirit together and to provide a glimmer of hope.  It also serves as a gathering place where they can meet and be with others from their department or from the hospital.  These reunions are absolutely awesome.  Those who are working, providing service at the Center are so wonderful, they listen to heartbreaking story after heart breaking story, and they pray, they weep, they laugh, they offer assistance and they keep going. Co workers from across the ministry are there offering their compassionate love and support.  Mercy in action brings tears to my eyes hour after hour.

Plans are underway for a Celebration of Hope at the Missouri Southern University on June 12th at 3:00 p.m. The intention is to get together with co-workers, civic partners and first responders to mourn losses, to turn to the future and plans for where we are going.

Please accept my poor efforts at sharing some of this experience with you.  Really it is beyond words and the reality is so much worse than the pictures, this is merely a brush at my effort to share yesterday’s experience with you.

Please continue to hold this community in prayer, the suffering is immense, the spirit is bold and there is hope in the air.  The preliminary steps to rebuilding are underway.


1 Comment »

  1. Few have the courage to remain optomistic in the face of loss, suffering and overwhelming discouragement. Even fewer have the wisdom and vision to see long term solutions to the existing shortfalls that led to the devastation. I’ve heard it credited to Albert Einstein as saying that the definition of insanity is to continue to do things the same way over and over again and somehow expect different results. I dare to say that it takes at least as much courage to embrace radical change for genuine significant progress as it does to remain optomistic in view of devastation. True life changing answers will always affect the financial empires of men and therefore will always evoke a negative response unless the powers that be can retain their position of preeminance and control. The survival of any society will be based not upon technological advances but upon it’s ability to become humble and wise enough to give way to those with self sustaining contributions.

    We have indeed answers to the devastating affects of Tornadoes, huricanes etc and no more cost than regular stick built housing. The war remains with our old arch enemy, the fallen nature of man. God help us and visit us with His grace.

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