The unimaginable happened on a Sunday afternoon May 22, 2011, when an EF-5 tornado struck Mercy Hospital Joplin (known then as St. John’s Regional Medical Center). The hospital sustained extensive damage and was evacuated. Patients were triaged and transported to hospitals across the region including Mercy hospitals in Springfield and Northwest Arkansas.
Recovery Begins with Commitment
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. Just days later, Mercy President and CEO Lynn Britton pledged to the community that Mercy would rebuild. “The Sisters of Mercy came to this 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,” Britton said. “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.”
“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,” Britton said.
Access to electronic health records (EHR) data helped Mercy get the hospital back online quickly and also helped patients who were transferred to other Mercy hospitals after the storm. Within a week of the storm hitting, a 60-bed, high-tech field tent hospital was up and functioning. On average, 130 patients per day were being treated at the hospital, which had an ER, surgical and imaging capabilities, and more. On June 9, 2011, U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon toured Mercy field hospital in Joplin. Secretary Napolitano praised Mercy physicians and co-workers for their quick response to the nearly total destruction of the hospital facility. The secretary went on to pledge continuing federal support to return Mercy Hospital Joplin to full function in coming months.
Support poured 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 – contributed to recovery efforts.
A Mission to Rebuild
Mercy Hospital Joplin saw its first wrecking ball on a chilly Sunday in January 2012, just eight months after the tornado hit. Prior to that, a team from Mercy searched the hospital wreckage to retrieve any keepsakes in good condition, including bibles, artwork, memorial plaques, stained glass and marble. They even recovered three time capsules from the property – one buried when the hospital was built in 1968, one when the east tower was completed in the 1980s and one that marked St. John’s 100th anniversary in 1996.
Among the pieces recovered is a 4-foot tall wooden cross that hung on a wall in the emergency department waiting room.
Every effort was made to take as little to the landfill as possible. Steel, aluminum and copper in the buildings were salvaged and recycled. The mountains of concrete and asphalt – created from tearing down the buildings and pulling up parking lots – was crushed into small pieces and used as engineered backfill to make the land ready for redevelopment.
Other pieces of the hospital were salvaged for a real-life science project of sorts. Many windows and pieces of plastic piping from the sprinkler system were saved to undergo testing to see how they weathered the storm. It’s knowledge that’s hard to gain outside of a situation like this one.
Built to Stand Against Nature’s Fury
Just 46 months after the tornado hit Joplin, the new $465 million Mercy Hospital Joplin opened to patients on March 23, 2015. The new hospital is nearly 900,000 square feet and features 205 private inpatient rooms as well as doctors’ clinic offices. Cancer patients have a designated entrance and access to the most advanced linear accelerator for radiation therapy. In July 2015, Mercy was recertified as a Level II trauma center and once again offers the highest level of care to injured patients in Joplin.
In choosing to rebuild in Joplin, Mercy erected a care center that showcases the science, empathy and common sense that has shaped its construction standards. These standards enabled Mercy planners to sketch the outlines of the new hospital quickly, with perhaps 90 percent of the plans in place within a week or two of the disaster. The last 10 percent came after hours of meetings with Joplin physicians, nurses, patients and community members. In addition to curing the ills of hospital design, Mercy has hardened the new Joplin hospital with a window system designed to withstand 250 mph winds, as well as added a concrete roof, fortified "safe zones" on every floor and half-buried generators away from the main building.
Mercy Hospital Joplin was named Best Health Care Project of Year 2015 by Engineering News Record and the Keystone Project of the Year 2015 by The Associated General Contractors of Missouri. The awards are based on safety, quality, schedule and overall difficulty of the work.
Long before construction began on the new Mercy Hospital Joplin, a plan was put in place to preserve native trees that miraculously survived the May 2011 tornado. The tree-salvaging project, which took root in the months leading up to the new hospital’s opening, earned Mercy the 2014 Missouri Arbor Award of Excellence in the Business/Institutions category by the Missouri Department of Conservation. Mercy, SWT Design, McCarthy Building Companies, Inc., Frank Sharum Landscape Design, Kin-Kam Tree Farm & Nursery and Wickman’s Garden Village worked together to develop the successful relocation strategy.
Philanthropy Follows Joplin Disaster
The path to recovery for Mercy Hospital Joplin was made possible with generous financial and material support of so many people, companies and organizations across the country and around the world.
Mercy co-workers showed their support with monetary donations and relief materials. “From the first day, our community of Mercy co-workers expressed a heartfelt desire to help their fellow co-workers in the recovery effort,” Britton said. Over $200,000 was raised through online giving on mercy.net.
In the initial aftermath, The First Response Team of America, a nonprofit organization recognized by CNN for its humanitarian efforts, provided several million dollars of heavy equipment, clearing the hospital grounds and roads and restoring power to the community.
Conference Attendees Gave $40,000 to Mercy for Joplin Relief Fund
At the 2011 IDN Summit, held in Phoenix, Arizona, nearly 1,000 conference attendees helped raise the $40,000 through a silent auction and personal contributions. The donation was presented by John Kelly, CEO of Bluegrass Business Media, the parent company that organizes the IDN Summit — a prominent health care industry conference, which brings together senior health care executives, group purchasing organizations and suppliers to focus on strategic health care supply chain issues.
UAE Embassy Gift Funds Vital Pediatric Care
Just days before the one-year anniversary of the Joplin tornado, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) Embassy in Washington, D.C., announced details of a $5 million gift from the UAE Embassy that funded a pediatric section and built the hospital’s first neonatal intensive care unit. It was Mercy’s commitment to Joplin that drew the interest of Ambassador Al Otaiba and the UAE government, which has a track record of medical philanthropy in the U.S. and has assisted other communities that have suffered the destructive force of natural disasters.
Extreme Weather: Defending Data in Disaster
Just a few weeks before the tornado struck, Mercy Hospital Joplin began using the same EHR system used by other Mercy hospitals and clinics in four states. Access to the EHR helped Mercy get the hospital back online quickly and also helped patients who were transferred to other Mercy hospitals after the storm.
Electronic health records were a lifeline for our patients, medical team and community. “If the tornado had hit a month earlier, before installing the electronic health record system in Joplin, Mercy would not have been able to bring up our mobile hospital within a week’s time,” said Mike McCreary of Mercy Technology Services.
Along with access to patient records, Mercy was among the first organizations in the area to reestablish communication services such as phone, network access, laptops, printers, etc., which helped provide the critical link between Mercy’s command center in Joplin, the new mobile hospital and physician offices in the community, and other locations across Mercy.
Mindful of natural disasters and other threats to system security, Mercy also invested $60 million in a high-tech data center built to withstand tornado-force winds and constructed in an area removed from earthquake fault lines. The facility, sitting on a bedrock foundation in Washington, Missouri, has access to alternate sources of power and a network capable of transferring the entire contents of the Library of Congress in less than 6.5 seconds.
Technology is essential to providing health care in today’s world. Health Data Management’s November 2015 article, “Eight Disaster Prep Lessons for IT from Mercy Hospital in Joplin,” used the Joplin tornado to help other health care IT leaders learn from Mercy’s response.