Lessons After the Storm: Joplin Surgeon Looks Back

Take emergency weather warnings seriously, prepare a plan to triage and treat mass casualties, and consider how you would work in a worst-case scenario following a major natural disaster. These are some lessons learned by a thoracic surgeon who survived a devastating EF 5 tornado that ripped through his hometown of Joplin, Mo.

The tornado was on the ground for 32 minutes and cut a 6-mile-wide swath through residential and downtown areas. (Photos courtesy Dr. Michael Phillips)

All normal communications were down when Dr. Michael Phillips arrived at his hospital, the Freeman Health System Heart and Vascular Institute. Staff figured out they could communicate via Facebook, Twitter, and texts. There was no water pressure or clean water.  “We were on generator power only, with no ability to identify any patient and no labs or x-rays,” Dr. Phillips said at the annual meeting of the American Association for Thoracic Surgery.

Nearby St. John’s Regional Medical Center, a 360-bed hospital, “was lifted off the ground and moved four inches off its foundation.” There were 183 inpatients at St. John’s when the tornado touched down

Cars were tossed about in front of St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin.

with winds approaching 300 mph on May 22, 2011. More than 70 patients, including 11 on ventilator support, “came to our hospital needing a place to stay, and we were already full. We

have a 250 bed hospital – what do you do from there?”

More than 1,000 patients were treated in the first 24 hours. There were 11 deaths in the first six hours and “I pronounced seven of them,” said Dr. Phillips, a cardiothoracic surgeon at Freeman. There were 161 deaths overall, making the Joplin tornado the deadliest on record since 1950.

“We didn’t sleep. We operated nonstop. We performed 22 operations during that time, 13 of which I performed. It was almost 30 hours before I took a break, the same thing with all the people around me,” Dr. Phillips replied. “I was really blessed by having a wonderful staff around me.”

“There were so many challenges to overcome; it’s really hard to put into words. You have to overcome that initial shock. The layperson doesn’t understand the devastation around them; you do. You have to get your arms around it and move on and deal with the situation at hand.”

A transition zone of less than 100 yards separated “completely normal from complete and total devastation.”

“One can never train enough for such an event. We have to try to be prepared as much as possible. Preparation should include all levels within the health system,” Dr. Phillips said. “Mass triage plans are critical.”

Lessons learned include taking weather warnings seriously.  “We used to blow these off and we pay attention now,” Dr. Phillips said. Take shelter when a siren sounds and review your plans for worst case scenarios.  All this advice applies to other natural disasters – including tsunamis, typhoons, and hurricanes, he said.

“These are all natural disasters that not only take life and create mass casualties, but they also take away our basic essentials of communications, food, clothing, and shelter.”

–Damian McNamara (on Twitter @MedReporter )

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Filed under Cardiovascular Medicine, Emergency Medicine, IMNG, Internal Medicine, Surgery, Thoracic Surgery, Uncategorized

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