From students to doctors; 2 colleagues connected by the Joplin tornado

Dr. Cali Clark and Dr. Justin Wilberding
Posted at 5:15 PM, May 19, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-19 18:15:08-04

JOPLIN, Mo. — The impact that the 2011 Joplin tornado had on the city’s medical community can't be overstated. In addition to the massive changes made to the local hospitals, it also altered the lives of every doctor and nurse who lived through it.

Two such stories are from doctors working at Freeman Health System. In 2011, Dr. Cali Clark graduated high school the day the tornado hit. Dr. Justin Wilberding was a third-year medical student who ended up caring for patients in a parking lot.

They never could have known they’d end up working together.

Clark's memories of her graduation from Joplin High School aren't about speeches or tassels.

"One of the guys that I was friends with at the time was sitting right next to me, and his dad worked in the ambulance community in the area,” Clark said. “And he got a text from his dad saying, ‘Hey it looks like there's a storm that's going to come into Joplin.’"

The students and their parents weren’t the only ones watching the weather that day.

"I remember, they started reading the names kind of faster and faster," Clark said. Clark’s family was on the road home from the ceremony when the storm hit.

"Siding was just flying by, tree branches were flying by," Clark said.

Her family was forced to take shelter in a grocery store during the worst of the storm.

"Cell phone lines were down, we couldn't get a hold of anyone, we didn't know the extent of the damage," Clark said.

When Clark’s family was finally able to reach their home, they got a look at the devastation. Her house was not severely damaged, but so many around it were lost.

At the same time Clark’s family was trying to get home, Justin Wilberding, then a medical student, couldn't get past debris on his way into the hospital. He spent hours in a Taco Bell parking lot, caring for the wounded.

"I had a lot of patients coming in on homemade stretchers made from their door frames, and things like that," Wilberding said.

In the middle of that makeshift emergency room, the future doctor experienced loss that left a mark.

"I had a little three-year-old child that was brought in by their parents carrying him,” Wilberding said. “He was lifeless, and he had massive head trauma, and you knew that he wasn't going to make it. I had a child about the same age at that time."

Wilberding could only offer comfort to the grieving family.

10 years later, Clark and Wilberding work together. He's a doctor, and she just graduated from Kansas City University Medical School in May 2021.

Wilberding was even able to work with Clark at Freeman while she was a student. Both say the tornado they lived through is part of the reason they're still here.

"The medical profession is altruistic, so you want to give back,” Wilberding said. “I think one of the greatest gifts you can do is to give back to your community, and being able to be a physician working in an underserved area, I think it really meets that need."

"The tornado made me want to do medicine here," Clark said. “There's always going to be people in the hospital that need health care. The thing that brings the joy to me is when I'm treating people from my community; people I know, my friends, my neighbors. When I go in and I see a patient and we happen to know the same person. That is what makes it worthwhile to me. That's what enriches me."

Clark told 41 Action News that if not for the tornado, she likely would have ended up somewhere else practicing medicine. But now, she says it feels right to remain in Joplin.