Joplin, Mo. -- When emergency medicine physician Dr. Kevin Kitka prepared for his evening shift at St. John's Regional Medical Center on Sunday, May 22, he did the things he always did. He ate, went to the gym, showered and headed to the eight-story hospital on the hill.
"As I drove to the hospital I mentally prepared for my shift as I always do, but nothing could ever have prepared me for what was going to happen," he said. "Like a bomb went off. That's the only way that I can describe what we saw next. Patients were coming into the ED in droves. It was absolute, utter chaos. They were limping, bleeding, crying, terrified, with debris and glass sticking out of them, just thankful to be alive."
One week later, Dr. Kitka and the St. John's Regional Medical Center team no longer work on the hospital in the hill. But the work of St. John's, part of the Mercy health system, continues.
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Among Mercy's first priorities was to locate more than 2,000 Mercy co-workers and physicians in the Joplin area and account for their safety and needs. As of May 27, all but about 300 active co-workers have been located.
Mercy President and CEO Lynn Britton made a promise on the Wednesday following the storm: "Let me be perfectly clear. Mercy will keep our co-workers on the payroll through this. It's the right thing for them and the right thing for southwest Missouri."
It was a bold statement for the leader of the 28-hospital system. But the dedication to the community isn't anything new. The Sisters of Mercy came to the Joplin 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 our commitment to Joplin remains strong," said Britton. "Co-workers will remain on Mercy's payroll indefinitely, and we are finding ways to keep them engaged in meaningful work. This will include reestablishing our services in Joplin, as well as providing job opportunities at other Mercy facilities and through a 'shared' co-worker program with other community hospitals."
A co-worker support center opened May 24 at a Mercy command center in Joplin at the Holiday Inn Convention Center, providing assistance to more than 1000 co-workers. Human resources representatives have been onsite all week, providing information about counseling/EAP services, return-to-work opportunities, benefits and payroll, relief resources and financial assistance.
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Britton also promised to continue health care services with as minimal disruption as possible, working in incremental steps to rise to a whole new level unimagined May 22.
It was a promise that included having a mobile hospital up and in operation within one week of the tornado. The assembly began May 26 on the 60-bed hospital, offering a full array of services including emergency, surgery, imaging, lab and inpatient care. It will be able to withstand 100 mile-per-hour winds. Named St. John's Mercy Hospital, the facility opens for patients Sunday, May 29.
It's a symbol not only for the rebuilding of Mercy health care services in the southwest Missouri community, but also for the renewal of life and hope in an entire region. And maybe beyond.
As structural engineers determine that the existing hospital is not viable for renovation, Mercy teams in Joplin are already evaluating site options and developing a strategy for a new community footprint.
The medical office building on the hospital campus also took a devastating blow, and structural evaluations are underway. Mercy primary care practices have been relocated and are operational. Specialists also are being relocated.
The Mercy Express Care and Mercy Clinic locations in Webb City, Carthage and Neosho were undamaged and are open.
Mercy's electronic health record system, which was implemented in Joplin less than a month ago, will go back online, connecting the new hospital and all Mercy sites of service.
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Support is pouring in, from places near and far, in our country and around the world.
Relief and volunteer agencies, Mercy's vendors and business partners, other health care organizations and individuals -- including many Mercy co-workers from across its seven states -- have contributed to recovery efforts. Mercy is accepting donations to assist the victims of the tornado through www.mercy.net
Monetary donations will first be used to assist our co-workers in Joplin who have been most affected by this disaster. Remaining funds will be used to support the medical needs of the Joplin community through Mercy initiatives and partnerships with other relief organizations.
Organized efforts are underway in every Mercy community to donate dollars and supplies, and to volunteer for clean-up and other relief activities.
"If there is one thing that I have come to believe during this incredible week, it is that the spirit of Mercy is enduring. Nothing -- not even an EF-5 tornado -- can keep us from fulfilling our mission of service to our communities," said Britton.