Joplin nurses who survived tornado remember St. John's Regional Medical Center

St. John's Hospital
Posted at 11:33 AM, May 24, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-24 12:33:21-04

JOPLIN, Mo. (KSHB) — Donna Stokes has worked for Mercy Hospital for more than 40 years. 10 years ago, it was known as St. John’s Regional Medical Center and she was home when one of her sons came in hearing sirens.

“Kind of that hair standing up on your arms type of situation, so I told him, you know, ‘get the dog, get your shoes.’ I have never said get your shoes to anyone, and to go to the basement,” she said.

The Registered Nurse and Infection Preventionist said they just made it to safety.

“(We) Got down the steps of the basement, I mean just barely and the tornado hit and we could hear the house disappear," Donna Stokes said.

Kevin Kepley is now the intensive care unit nurse manager at Mercy Hospital and was at St. John's Regional Medical Center caring for patients when the tornado hit.

“It was like it was midnight," he said. “So we started taking cover and the windows busted and debris was flying." “There were nine of us in a two by two room with the patient trying to keep him safe.”

Kepley said just when they thought the storm had passed, a few people started venturing out.

“Then the backside hit,” he said. “You could hear things, the building you could feel the building shaking.”

“The whole time you’re in there, thinking ‘was today the last day I saw my family when I came to work? Are we all going to survive and get out of here?" Kepley said.

When the tornado did pass, “you could still hear and feel the air as the tornado was still going on because it was still happening while we were coming out and taking care of people," according to Kepley.

A representative for Mercy Hospital said more than 200 people were likely in St. John’s the night of the tornado including about 150 patients. Five people were killed.

“It didn’t take long to start hearing the hospital had taken a direct hit,” Stokes said. “Your mind goes, ‘I need to be there, but how?’”

“We were already starting to look at what was in the hospital, what could be salvaged, you know? That was my job,” Stokes said.

“Just within 48 hours only we were able to get in the building. There was mold starting to grow and really not very much of anything that came out of that building that could be salvaged for medical care," she continued.

Within days, a tent field hospital was running near the battered building. Over the weeks and months, they worked to keep moving forward.

“You couldn’t call anyone to say, ‘hey what do you do in this situation?’ because really, no one’s been in that situation before," Stokes said.

Mercy Hospital was rebuilt in a different location. Eventually, St. John’s came down.

“It protected as many patients and staff as it could that day,” Stokes said. “It was a tough old building.”

“It was definitely built to withstand the elements and thank God it did,” Kepley. “It was very difficult, you know? Because that was home away from home.”

10 years later, both Stokes and Kepley have stayed, they’ve battled a pandemic and they both still work at Mercy Hospital.

Stoke's family rebuilt their home in the same spot. After what they witnessed in the aftermath and recovery of the tornado, her two sons have both pursued medicine. One is now in medical school and the other is a physician.

In the weeks after the storm, Stokes remembers words she heard at a service for the victims.

“Mercy is alive and well in Joplin”, she said. “And hold on to that because, by golly, we made it through all of those struggles to this beautiful building that you see here today.”