–Joe R. Womble, MD
The first bit of feedback was fantastic: Everyone who had been inside the hospital—roughly 200 to 300 people, including 30 patients—had survived.
“Everyone was fine,” he said. “All the patients and staff, no one got injured. I was thinking that either the hospital was missed by the storm or that it must not have really damaged it very significantly.”
Unfortunately, the hospital was not OK. He watched as local TV painted a very different picture.
“They started showing aerial shots and I was just shocked. My jaw was just dropped,” Dr. Womble said. “The main entrance that I go in every day was literally stacked with three or four cars deep. A huge stack of about 30 cars was piled up on the main entrance, essentially.”
It was as though they were “toy cars.”
The May 20 tornado, a two-mile-wide superstorm boasting 200-mph winds that struck just south of Oklahoma City, claimed 24 lives and left the regional health system with a void in its network. It also left hospitalists mourning the loss of the place they called a second home several times a week. About a week after the storm, officials announced that Moore Medical Center would have to be demolished.
Despite the terrible events, hospitalists and hospital officials were astounded by the good fortune of the hospital’s inhabitants. Dr. Womble said about 100 people from nearby neighborhoods and businesses used the hospital as shelter.
Senthil Raju, MD, a hospitalist who had done rounds at Moore Medical earlier that day, said the protocol was to take shelter in the hallways. But at some point, probably only minutes before the storm hit, the chief nurse and the house supervisor made the decision to move all the patients to the ground floor because they were in “reasonably stable condition,” according to Dr. Womble, who relayed accounts by staffers who were there. Most of the people in the hospital rode out the storm in the first-floor cafeteria.
After the storm, patient rooms on the second floor were either no longer there or had been reduced to their steel innards.
The decision to move everyone undoubtedly saved lives. “If any of our patients stayed there, they’re probably all dead,” Dr. Raju said.
David Whitaker, CEO of Norman Regional Health System, which includes Moore Medical, marveled at the outcome.
“We had some bumps and bruises, some scratches, but no major lacerations, no broken bones, no injuries that people couldn’t ambulate. It’s totally amazing,” he said. “The leadership that was in place, the employees that were working at that time, they sprang into action, they took command and control of the situation. They got people into the proper areas.”
Dr. Womble said hospital staff at Moore Medical had still more amazing stories of death-defiance. They told him 30 people refused to leave the chapel. Somehow, the chapel remained intact, even though the hospital all around it was destroyed. Whitaker confirmed this.
One woman in active labor was kept in a second-floor operating room—which the medical staff thought was the best place for her, all things considered. Nurses covered the woman with pillows, blankets, and their own bodies as the tornado barreled through the town. She survived and gave birth to a boy several hours later. The parents gave him the middle name Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”
As the tornado approached, an elderly volunteer had gone outside to get something from a van he used to transport elderly patients to and from a physical therapy program. “Nobody inside knew he had gone outside,” Dr. Womble said. By the time he tried to get back in, the power had gone out, and the doors wouldn’t open. He huddled behind a concrete pillar and ended up with just one minor laceration.
Patients eventually were taken to another hospital, Norman’s HealthPlex, about five miles south. Both Dr. Womble and Dr. Raju have begun working full time at the HealthPlex.
Dr. Raju said that he avoided being at Moore Medical during the tornado only by a turn of luck. He normally rounds at Moore in the afternoon and at the HealthPlex in the morning. But on that day, there were three new admissions at Moore, and only one at HealthPlex. So he went to Moore first, and was gone by the time the tornado hit.
“So lucky,” he said.
–David Whitaker, CEO of Norman Regional Health System
It remains to be seen what kind of medical facility will be built to replace Moore Medical Center.
“Nobody knows what will happen next, but a lot of us speculate that they will not rebuild an inpatient facility,” said Dr. Womble, who had worked at Moore Medical Center for four years.
Whitaker said the first priority was to re-establish the clinics located at Moore Medical, and that has been done. The next step is, possibly, a temporary building in Moore for urgent care. The long-term plan remains in the discussion phase.
“We’ve already started having some meetings,” Whitaker said. “We’re going to determine what type of facility, what service levels it will be offering as we go back.”
It’s hard knowing that his hospital is no longer there, Dr. Raju said.
“We are going to miss it,” he said. “It’s unimaginable.”
Dr. Womble said those first few hours, when he wasn’t sure of where he’d be working, were difficult. He struggles to describe the feeling of not being able to provide care at his hospital at the time it’s most needed.
“It’s really hard to put it into words,” he said. “It’s the only hospital in that city, and it’s just me and my partner to take care of virtually everyone that comes in with any kind of medical problem. I definitely feel a tie to the community.
“It’s devastating. What is the rest of the city going to do for their hospital care? They essentially will not have a hospital in their city. They’ll have to drive to another city for care.”
Tom Collins is a freelance writer in South Florida.