Tornadoes that ripped through the state on Monday, April 28, put UMMC’s emergency responders, care providers and medical equipment into action to help fellow Mississippians in need.
After monitoring weather for more than 24 hours, a team of medical and emergency professionals, part of a statewide network coordinated from the Medical Center, stood ready when a storm cell blasted through Tupelo that afternoon.
“We were ready to go with assets and a team at Baptist Memorial in Oxford. Local responders were able to handle it and didn’t need us,” said Jonathan Wilson, UMMC director of emergency services. “In any disaster, our goal is to support our state’s population by coordinating with the State Department of Health and the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency.”
The need for help came three hours later when a tornado blew into Louisville, tearing through multiple buildings, including a day care and the Winston County Medical Center.
Radio traffic in Med-Com, the UMMC-based medical communications hub for the state, spiked as damage assessments came in.
Med-Com began supporting local EMS and hospital providers by coordinating ambulance transport of patients to nearby hospitals. Med-Com also relayed damage reports and real-time information to the Department of Health and MEMA as the full response started, Wilson said.
As those reports came in, the disaster’s scope took shape. Two of the Louisville hospital’s walls crumbled and a third took heavy damage. The storm twisted open a gas line, flooded the emergency room and left only one working phone line.
Knowing traumatic injuries were likely, Chief Executive Officer Kevin Cook, Wilson and other leaders activated UMMC’s Emergency Operations Plan, which clears and readies adult and pediatric trauma rooms, Emergency Department capacity and operating rooms.
Meanwhile, storms spun tornadoes through Pearl, Brandon, Gluckstadt and Lake Caroline, making immediate travel impossible.
As weather passed locally, Wilson made the first of multiple deployments to Louisville that night. A Forward Assessment and Scene Triage (FAST) Team of three people left to help local emergency responders and health-care workers triage storm victims and clear the damaged hospital.
Despite the storm keeping AirCare helicopters in Jackson and Meridian grounded, their crews - first Jackson, then Meridian – constituted the first two FAST teams.
Sam Marshall, Meridian AirCare base manager, lives in West Point and was on his way home when the tornado hit Louisville. He drove toward the damage reaching the scene first, followed closely by the initial FAST team, AirCare nurses Paul Boackle and Brad Strong, and Emergency Response Manager Heath Williams.
A Lauderdale County Sheriff’s deputy took Meridian AirCare crew members Brock Whitson and James Walters to Louisville by patrol car.
“The local responders and hospital staff along with our AirCare and FAST Team guys are really the heroes of the day. They did a lot of good, helping search and clear the hospital,” Wilson said.
As the weather cleared Jackson, the AirCare 1 helicopter and a third team left. It included two physicians, a nurse practitioner and two nurses. A pediatric transport team also deployed from UMMC to support the FAST teams and local search-and-rescue efforts.
An eight-bed mobile field hospital deployed from the Medical Center that night when weather had calmed across the metro area. Contained in an 18-wheeler truck, the unit is essentially an emergency room on wheels, part of a joint asset of the State Department of Health and UMMC.
A 16-member team traveled with the unit, including children’s hospital physicians and nurses, a respiratory therapist, paramedics, campus police, biohazard and fire safety officers. They would stay into the following day, then swap out with another team to staff the unit with 24/7 coverage.
In Louisville, wreckage including cars and building debris, kept members of the State Medical Response Team from setting up the mobile hospital at the Winston County Medical Center. Instead they staged in the Wal-Mart parking lot at the intersection of Mississippi 25 and 14 since the unit has a heavy footprint and requires a large clear, hard surface.
“The mobile unit got on scene and was set up by the time the FAST teams had cleared and evacuated the Winston Medical Center. They closed the Winston County Medical Center, left an ambulance and a highway patrol officer there in case victims showed up,” Wilson said.
Back at UMMC, staff readied and deployed a trailer of medical and emergency supplies that further supported the mobile hospital.
A nursing home near the Winston County Medical Center took damage as well. Wilson praised the employees’ response.
“Their evacuation was executed perfectly by the staff. They did it that night and into Tuesday. It was as equally impressive as the work our teams did. They evacuated over 100 patients and either got them home to families or to a pre-designated shelter at a church,” he said.
“One of the things we saw during Hurricane Katrina was the elderly not getting the help they needed. The Department of Health requires nursing homes to have an emergency plan, so their plans and training really paid off.”
From Louisville, responders transported 37 patients to various hospitals throughout the night and following early morning. Those included 12 adults and three children in critical condition, five adults and three children in serious condition, and 14 adults in fair condition.
Most of the critical patients came to UMMC. Others went to Anderson Regional Medical Center in Meridian, Baptist Golden Triangle in Columbus, Oktibbeha County Hospital in Starkville and North Mississippi Medical Center-Eupora.
Providers at the scene treated and released more than 100 patients overnight into Tuesday morning.
“We really got great support from all over the Medical Center, the Department of Health, MEMA and other state agencies,” Wilson said.
State Department of Health officials assessed the Winston County Medical Center on Tuesday and determined the damage made it unsafe for patients.
Damaged interior of of Winston County Medical in Louisville
UMMC crews and the mobile field unit will stay in support of the Louisville community as long as needed, Wilson said, a timeline that local leaders, physicians and medical responders will help set.
“We’re working with local emergency responders and health-care providers. At this point we don’t have a set date to leave, but will coordinate that with the local providers. We want to support local providers as long as needed, but not create competition for services,” he said.
Faculty and staff at UMMC’s hospitals – Emergency Department physicians and pharmacists, intensive care unit nurses and therapists working on patient floors – cared for multiple tornado victims throughout the week.
Aubrey Pepper, perioperative nurse educator at Batson Children’s Hospital, noted the tenderness operating room staff showed toward storm victims.
Staff members bought lunch for family of victims, purchased hair brushes and washed the children’s mud and debris-filled hair, she wrote in an email. Staff took extra care to bathe the children while they were asleep so the children would wake up from their surgeries clean, comfortable and at lower risk for infections.
“I have seen this type of extra effort time and time again from the Batson surgery team, but rarely are they recognized for their efforts,” Pepper wrote. “Due to the nature of perioperative services these staff are unseen by families, but their exceptional work has long lasting effects.”
On Thursday, North Carolina, in coordination with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said it would send its 41-bed mobile field hospital to Louisville. Unlike Mississippi’s mobile hospital which is a series of heavy-duty tents, the North Carolina hospital has hard walls and can remain deployed for an extended time.
Mississippi and North Carolina’s emergency response interactions stretch back to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Since then they’ve trained together for a large-scale earthquake disaster and evaluated each other’s training exercises.
Wilson said Winston County health-care workers would staff the mobile hospital since the Winston County Medical Center was projected to be out of commission until sometime in 2015.
“The hospital and nursing home are the county’s biggest employers so it’s important we help those people return to work. That’s an important part of the long-term recovery because they need to pay their house notes and car notes,” he said.
“It’s easy to show up right after the disaster in the limelight but we need to get the recovery aspect right.”