‘This Is Where I Needed to Go’

June 08, 2011

by Linda Friedel | Reprinted courtesy of KC Nursing News

Research Medical Center staff assist Joplin tornado victimsKansas City nurses cared for Joplin’s wounded after a deadly tornado charged through the Missouri town, leaving miles of destruction.

“I had never seen as many people with so many different wounds,” said Myra Merritt, RN, BSN, a critical care nurse at Research Medical Center. “There were just so many people admitted from the tornado.”

Merritt joined a team of nurses from Research and a dozen more from St. Mary’s Medical Center and North Kansas City Hospital for four days of service at Joplin’s Freeman Health System May 24-27. They slept on cots in the hospital’s conference room and washed with bottled water.

“I got to know my fellow nurses,” Merritt said. “We got very close. We ate together, we slept together.”

Freeman Health System needed critical care nurses to help with a surge of patients the first week following the May 22 tornado that touched down in Joplin leaving hundreds wounded. Merritt said by the time she arrived, the facility had admitted more than 375 tornado victims on top of existing patients and recently transferred patients from St. John’s Regional Medical Center, severely damaged by the storm. Merritt said she felt pulled to go.

“I would just hope that if that happened in Kansas City, they would do the same thing,” she said. “That’s exactly what nursing is about. This is where I needed to go.”

Merritt admitted patients, performed histories, started IVs and gave tetanus shots. She watched a steady stream of patients arrive daily with crush injuries, head injuries, skull fractures, broken bones, and cuts and bruises head to toe from flying debris. One patient had surgery to remove a board impaled in his back, she said, while others arrived with two black eyes or multiple abrasions. Patients needed stitches, staples and surgeries. By her last day, patients were arriving with infections from wounds improperly cared for or neglected altogether.

It was Merritt’s first time helping in a disaster, and she was glad to go.

“Our hospital was very supportive of us going down there,” she said.

Research gave the nurses a hero’s send-off and a hospital-wide welcome home.

“It was very nice to see they were thinking of us while we were down there,” she said.

Merritt said when she wasn’t at the bedside or filling in anywhere the hospital needed her, she and her bunkmates explored the town.

She saw trees uprooted from the ground, crumbled houses, cars crushed into a giant balls of metal, cars on roofs, cars wrapped on light posts and roofs stacked two and three deep on the ground.

“It was just like a bomb went off,” she said. “Something just blew up.”

But most profound, Merritt said, was watching people walking in their former homes, debris beneath their feet, searching for possessions or pets.

“It was just pretty sad,” she said. “Everyone wanted to tell their story. I just listened, let them know that we’re there for them.”

Another group from Research arrived in Joplin as the first wave left. Merritt said the hospital will continue to send nurses as long as help is needed. She said she would even return.

“This is our community. This is our state,” she said. “The TV doesn’t even compare to what is out there in real life.”

Merritt said she will never forget the patients who thanked her repeatedly, nor will she forget the day she stepped off the bus in Joplin. Sirens screamed, warning of another tornado. Patients were already coping with post traumatic stress, she said, and now there was another wave of storms.

“The people were very scared,” she said. “It took a lot to calm them down.”

Merritt said the best thing she did at the hospital was listen.

“Let them tell their story” she said. “That’s something that nurses tend to do. Listen to the patient and listen to what they have to say.”

Lynnette Hayes, BSN, clinical manager for cardiac telemetry at Research Medical Center, was part of Merritt’s team. Hayes said Research has a strong tradition of community service in Kansas City, engaging in local health fairs and fundraisers for the American Heart Association. She said the nurses who stayed home to work at Research deserve recognition, as they covered for the Joplin teams, making it a hospital-wide effort.

“It was just a very easy transition to Joplin,” she said. “It felt like the right thing to do. We did pretty much whatever they asked.”

Hayes spent a fair amount of time distributing bottled water throughout the hospital. Bottled water was used for bathing patients, drinking and hand washing, she said. Like Merritt, she listened.

“They needed to process the event,” she said. “It’s a huge healing process. It’s going to be a very long emotional process.”

Photo courtesy Phil Licata