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Pharmacists Answer Call to Serve in Wake of Storms

Sep 23, 2011

The Tuscaloosa, Ala., tornado in April of this year came within a block of DCH Regional Medical Center.

NONE OF THE PATIENTS WORE SHOES. Yet they would have to cross rain-soaked hallways strewn with broken glass, shards of concrete, and twisted pieces of metal to reach the stairwells. Tim Holding, Pharm.D., remembers wanting to give his shoes away, but he needed them to carry patients over the debris and help the ambulatory patients walk down six floors.

Just a couple of hours earlier, Holding, a staff pharmacist at St. John’s Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo., was worried that the coming thunderstorm would pelt his car with hail, now that the parking garage had been torn down. From a south-facing patio, he watched the black wall of clouds approaching and heard the sirens go off. Holding went back in. Moments later, “Execute Code Gray” blared from hospital loudspeakers: Staff on the units would have to physically move or otherwise protect patients.

Pharmacy’s Location a Blessing

Holding was back in the pharmacy working on a vancomycin consult when the tornado’s 200-mile-per-hour winds made a direct hit. Ceiling tiles shook loose and dust filled the room, but the pharmacy’s central location protected it from the worst. “I always complain that hospital pharmacies are in the middle of the hospital, and we never have a view,” he said. “This one time I was glad that we didn’t.”

Patient-care rooms in St. John's Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo., were demolished in the EF5 tornado that hit the city in May.

Less than a minute later, Holding opened the door onto the ruins. Main and backup generators had been wrenched from their foundations, and it took Holding and some pharmacy technicians 15 minutes to find a working flashlight before they could venture into the darkened and treacherous hallways.

Word reached Holding that patients were trapped on the sixth floor, so he and a technician headed up. In one corner room, the south and west exterior walls were simply gone, and Holding could see three rooms down to the east. The bed, still containing an elderly woman, had spun completely around, but she was unharmed. “If patients couldn’t walk, we used mattresses, wheelchairs, any means possible to get them down,” Holding said.

Later, at a temporary dispensary set up a block away, the formulary dwindled to the point where Holding had to tell physicians what their options were. A makeshift hospital went up inside the town’s Memorial Hall a mile away. It has since been replaced by a modular system next to St. John’s.

That day, six people at the hospital were killed and several more died of their injuries. Overall, more than 150 people lost their lives and thousands were injured in the terrifying storm. The massive tornado’s power was enough to deform the hospital’s steel supporting beams. St. John’s will be demolished and rebuilt.

“For more than a month afterwards,” Holding said, “I thought about it pretty constantly—what I should have done, where I should have been.”

Doing Whatever It Takes

The EF5 tornado that destroyed much of Joplin on May 22, 2011, was among the worst in an exceptionally destructive and deadly year for the storms. On April 14, a tornado turned one caregiver into a victim. U.S. Public Health Service (USPS) LCDR Brian Johnston, D.Ph., facility director and chief pharmacist at the Choctaw Nation Health Clinic in Atoka, Okla., was at home and in the midst of a live chat session for an ASHP Foundation Leadership Academy capstone course when tennis-ball-size hail started falling. The twister was his house minutes later. Johnston, his wife, one of his two daughters (the other was out of town), and their puppy hunkered under a mattress in the laundry room as the winds ripped their house apart.

The family walked out unscathed. For the next eight-and-a-half weeks, weeks, Johnston and his family lived in a motel room, then a rented house 30 miles from home while waiting for their house to be rebuilt. A September move-in is planned. “We’re slowly getting our lives back on track,” Johnston said.

Johnston has been on the other end of disasters as well. In September 2004, as a USPS lieutenant, Johnston was deployed to Florida to care for victims of the “hurricane train” that ravaged much of the state that year.

“It was, hands down, the best thing I’ve ever done in my job,” he said. “I had my clinical area of expertise, but if they said, ‘Hey, go haul some oxygen bottles’ or ‘Give this guy a bath’ or ‘Change bedding,’ I didn’t care.”

The Desire to Help People

Tim Martin, Pharm.D., director of pharmacy at DCH Regional Medical Center in Tuscaloosa, Ala., understands the sentiment. On April 29, Martin was at work when a 1.5-mile-wide funnel swept within blocks of the hospital. Immediately after the storm passed, the casualties began descending on the largely undamaged facility. Forty-three people were killed and thousands injured in Tuscaloosa alone.

“In the emergency department, we saw 800 people in six hours,” said Martin. “What I did in there had nothing to do with medication distribution or therapeutic decisions. I did whatever was needed. Your instincts kick in, and I think those are the same instincts that bring many people into the pharmacy profession: You want to help people, and the hour presented itself when we were able to do that.”

Editor’s Note: For more personal storm stories told in pharmacists’ own words, go to “In There Own Words.”

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