A U-M nurse relays message from the front lines of Joplin
ANN ARBOR, Mich. – Sam Warkentien got a call from a close friend and nurse practitioner in Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, May 22. They had just been hit by a tornado.
“I turned on the weather and sure enough, that’s when I saw the meteorologist in tears, looking at people on the ground,” she says.
The camera panned the scene, in plain sight lay the eviscerated St. John’s Regional Medical Center. “My heart sank.”
Just three years earlier, Warkentien, who is now a nurse in the Emergency Department at the University of Michigan Health System, undertook her undergraduate internship in emergency nursing at St. Johns.
“I was doing what I was supposed to do as a nurse intern, and that’s when the F4 hit Picher, Oklahoma.
"We experienced patients who were transported to St. Johns and I assisted in disaster relief,” she says
Not only did she have friends in Joplin, and its hospital, but she knew how devastating this tornado would be to the town, and to those caught in its path.
“It was all I could do not to jump in my car and head south, right then and there,” she says. “And if it had not been for my two little girls and my husband I would have.”
And Monday, she knew she’d still need to report to work.
Little did she know her husband and his family, who live in Kansas City, Mo., decided to pitch in to buy her a ticket to Joplin. “He called me on my way to work and said, ‘Turn around, we’re buying you a ticket and you are going down to Joplin.’ So I made arrangements at work, and went.”
Warkentien met up with her father-in-law after multiple layovers due to weather conditions between Michigan and Kansas City.
They drove from Kansas City to Nevada, Mo. and met up with a friend from Joplin to complete the drive into town by Tuesday night.
“My husband made me pack his HAM radio – it kept us safe that night,” she says. More tornadoes spawned nearby and the HAM was her only link to weather communications.
After unpacking, they went to Memorial Hall – once the local venue for concerts and events such as the Piccadilly Circus – now a makeshift emergency triage area for St. Johns patients and those injured in the tornado.
“When we arrived it was clear that Memorial Hall didn’t need more emergency workers,” she says. “We weren’t doing any good there, so we had heard about the 20th and Main Walgreens providing first aid, even tetanus shots, so that’s where we headed.”
Although windows were broken and roof damaged, the Walgreen’s became a community triage and supply distribution center, Warkentien says.
“It morphed about four times while we were there. Initially, some of the injured were triaged on Sunday and Monday where they were transported to hospital facilities, then it became a first aid station, and from that point it became a central point for distribution of water and food. The Salvation Army set up there and people were dropping off water.”
According to Warkentien, the manager of Walgreen’s reported for duty the night the tornado hit to keep people out of the building, but brought first aid and other supplies like batteries and medication out for them to use.
As her week progressed, Warkentien joined the “backpack brigade.” She, along with other nurses, paramedics, LPNs and other first responders, with first-aid supplies, food and water on their backs, walked around the community, assisting those in need.
“We helped people who were digging through their stuff who suffered minor injuries in the process,” she says. “But a lot of people were just wandering around in shock not eating or drinking for days, so we’d go out in these groups and walk through incredibly destroyed areas, giving them food and water and trying to help any way we could.”
“I stayed from Tuesday until Friday, and the one thing the people I spoke to told me was, ‘Please, keep sending help.’ They don’t want people to forget about them – their biggest message to me was, ‘Keep coming, keep helping us.’ ”
Warkentien says they’re asking for help with clean-up, in particular, anyone willing to come down to help clean up debris. “If you’re willing to bring your chainsaw, there are people here that can get you set up to help,” she says.
First responders – those who have been on the scene, treating others, even though they too were affected by the tornado – are also going to need relief, she adds.
“They need nurses, paramedics, police officers, first responders – the medical staff is going to need relief, too. They themselves have suffered a major trauma. “
Now that relief efforts are more organized, officials in Joplin encourage individuals not to show up unannounced or to self-deploy, but to contact organized relief efforts to ensure their skills are used when and where needed most.
Those who work at other health systems or in private practice should contact their local Red Cross chapters for information on volunteering through the Red Cross. (In Washtenaw County, call Ashley Cieslinski, Red Cross emergency services director, at 734-961-1010.)
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