New Joplin Hospital Brings Co-workers Home

February 27, 2015

Nurse Rita Jens gives a candid account of what it means to be with Mercy.

By Mercy's Jeff Raymond

Immediately after a tornado destroyed St. John’s Regional Medical Center on May 22, 2011, Mercy leaders promised co-workers they wouldn’t lose their jobs. No one did, and many of them are thriving in places and in roles they couldn’t have predicted nearly four years ago.

Several of the 2,200 employees at the time of the tornado have moved on to other careers, but Mercy Hospital Joplin currently employs 1,500 and expects that number to grow to 1,800 within a few months after the new hospital opens on March 22. Mercy’s talent sharing program placed all but 100 co-workers in jobs around Joplin and surrounding states, with the same pay and benefits they had received at St. John’s. Many were able to go to work at Mercy’s temporary, 100-bed hospital in Joplin, and about 160 took jobs in Mercy facilities across four states. The placements make up part of the $1 billion Mercy has invested in Joplin recovery efforts. 

“Mercy’s mission is to serve, and that goes for our co-workers just as much as it does for our patients,” said Lynn Britton, Mercy president and CEO. “There was no question whether we would do everything in our power to keep our people working and set an example for Joplin recovery.”

Learning a new skill

Rita Jens was an experienced critical care nurse, but she had always wanted to work in that capacity with babies. She found a temporary home at Mercy Hospital Oklahoma City in the neonatal intensive care unit. Without Mercy’s commitment and the talent-sharing program, Jens could have been jobless. Instead, she was able to receive the training she needed to work with the tiniest of patients.

“Mercy showed up and they got a hold of people, and the first thing they told us is, ‘You have a job. You will have a paycheck at the end of the week. We will find something for you to do,’ ” Jens recalled.

Jens thanks Mercy for taking care of her when she needed help and giving her the opportunity to grow as a nurse. Orientation in Oklahoma City reminded Jens of Mercy’s commitment to displaced co-workers. 

“When I went through orientation, Mercy talked about dignity and how we treat our patients. All the way through orientation I was getting all sappy, thinking, ‘Well, that’s exactly how Mercy treated us [in Joplin] – just like family,’ ” she said.

Weeks of waiting

Weeks of waiting for something to do was all physical therapist assistant Stephanie Kinsch could handle, so she used her skills as a combat veteran to work security for Mercy in Joplin.

“After seven weeks of not working, I needed to do something. I did not want to sit at home and wait and wait and wait for something to happen,” she said.

Shortly thereafter, her manager told her about an opportunity in Springfield, Missouri, where she spent almost a year and a half. Her commute to Springfield was 92 miles each way and took its toll on Kinsch, who also had to make time to take care of her children because her husband was a full-time student.

“I left as early as possible from home and left Springfield as late as possible, but I still wasn’t putting in eight-hour days,” she said, calling her new hospital “very accommodating.”

Kinsch was a new graduate and had been at Mercy Hospital Joplin for only seven months before the May 2011 tornado. Kinsch still can’t believe her good fortune to work for an employer that would take care of her the way Mercy has in the face of catastrophe. 

“It was just overwhelming that a company could be that considerate of their employees. Knowing in that moment, everyone from my immediate supervisor to CEO was considering what was best for the individual and not the company. I am so grateful,” she said.

Putting down roots

Mercy nurse Lorene Blazek’s home in Joplin was destroyed in the tornado.

“When it was all over, our house was completely gone. There were no walls standing. We were just out in the open,” she said.

Her sister-in-law in Flower Mound, Texas, had room for the family, so they moved to the Dallas area. A Mercy recruiter convinced her to stop at Mercy Hospital Ardmore in Oklahoma on one of her trips between Joplin and Texas. She was impressed by the friendliness in Ardmore and how it felt like home.

“I checked it out and was welcomed with open arms,” she recalled.

Mercy found Blazek a position on the medical-surgery renal unit similar to the one she worked on in Joplin. Soon, she was making the 70-mile commute from Texas to Ardmore. Blazek and her husband bought a home in Denton, Texas, and have since settled there. 

Setting an example

“Once the tornado hit, it was chaos,” said Aaron Hailey, a physical therapist assistant. “They used us wherever there was need.”

Within a month or so of the tornado, it became clear the patient load in Joplin wouldn’t support Hailey, so he started what would become two years of commuting to Springfield. His new job was very similar to his previous one, and he commuted often with Kinsch, which made the drive go by more quickly.

Hailey said there was never any doubt that he and others who were displaced by the tornado would return to work in Joplin. Mercy is an “industry and community leader,” he said, and set an example for other businesses. He called Mercy “one of the most stabilizing influences” in the community.

“All you have to do is look at what happened in a lot of the other businesses around town,” he said, describing the number of businesses that closed and people who were out of work, many of whom left Joplin and haven’t returned. “A lot of times people didn’t know they had a job and ended up moving and finding another place to live.”

Community leaders agree. “Mercy’s decision sent a message that Joplin could rebound, and come back better,” said Rob O’Brian, president of the Joplin Area Chamber of Commerce.

That message has become a reality. Rebuilding continues throughout the city, and progress is evident on every corner. Mercy offers a larger, stronger facility that is filled with the latest medical equipment and, most importantly, Mercy’s co-workers. The message to them is simple: Welcome home.

Mercy is the fifth largest Catholic health care system in the U.S. and serves millions annually. Mercy includes 35 acute care hospitals, four heart hospitals, two children’s hospitals, three rehab hospitals and two orthopedic hospitals, nearly 700 clinic and outpatient facilities, 40,000 co-workers and more than 2,000 Mercy Clinic physicians in Arkansas, Kansas, Missouri and Oklahoma. Mercy also has outreach ministries in Louisiana, Mississippi and Texas.

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