Joplin ER Nurse Remembers The Tornado One Year Later
JOPLIN, Missouri - In 19 days, Joplin, Missouri will mark the first anniversary of the tornado the killed 160 and left a wide swath of the city in ruin.
Judy Stevenson, a nurse, rode out that storm. She's still riding out the recovery. In between, she gained an insight she never wanted. But one she now shares, just the same.
The memories of all she had, and all she lost, will never leave Judy Stevenson.
She cowered in the basement and prepared to die as the screaming wind tore to bits her 100 year-old home.
"I thought I was going to die," Stevenson said. "I honestly thought that this was the end of my life, and I wasn't going to survive."
"I came down off the step and I turned and looked, and I saw St. John's," she said. "I wondered if people died in the building. I knew people would need healthcare. I knew that wasn't the place to go because they were going to evacuate that building. That's why I made the decision to go that direction to Freeman."
Freeman Hospital stands across the street from St. John's Hospital in Joplin. That Sunday evening, that street separated devastation from chaos.
Joplin's largest hospital lay mortally wounded. A symbol of mercy and caring that could offer neither. The only alternative was Freeman.
She spent 21 years as a nurse at both hospitals. Judy left the rubble of her life behind on Oliver Street and found her way there.
There was no air conditioning, because they were on emergency generators. There was no moving air. It smelled horrible. People were in wet clothes. People were vomiting because the things they saw were so horrific. There was no bathrooms. The water supply was limited.
"I walked past one room and looked in a room and there were 9 people in one little cubicle," she said. "You were lucky if you got a bed; most people were laying on the floor, sitting on the floor."
Judy estimates 1,100 people showed up at Freeman Hospital in those first few hours after the tornado struck with some sort of ailment, needing some kind of care.
The injured stumbling in, dazed and bloody, carried on broken doors, jammed in pick-up beds and ambulances.
Judy and the others confronted with the triage from Hell. She was overwhelmed with patients and did not enough supplies. So some could be saved and others not.
Judy had to make choices that night that will haunt her till her last breath.
"My dad was in the war, and when he came home after the war he didn't talk about things," Stevenson said. "We didn't understand it but after you've been through that, you understand."
Deciding that maybe she had something to offer, that she survived for some reason, Judy has taken all she learned from that night, and the long weeks after, and put it together for others to hear.
Working now at St. John Medical Center in Tulsa, Judy asks her co-workers to imagine what they'd do if the unthinkable happened to their hospital.
Knowing the unthinkable is a concept you can't imagine until you're staring it in the face. Hospitals are always there, after all, reassuring us, offering help and hope - until they're not.
"They ask me a lot of times afterwards, ‘what do you think I should do if this happens?' Like I'm an expert on it," she said. "I'm not an expert on it; I just survived it."
And as a survivor, Judy's best advice to her colleagues and to you is to be flexible and patient, and be confident that you can overcome disaster.
"It's hard when everything you know is different... everything," she said.
That's why a trip back to Oliver Street is still so hard. It's not just been stripped clean of its trees and its old homes and its memories. Six of Judy's neighbors died that evening, the rest have been scattered by the wicked wind, Judy doesn't know to where.
In seconds, her thirty years of a life lived here were crushed. And that might be the end of it, if she allowed it to be.
"If you ask me one day of course my immediate thought is, I want to come home," Judy Stevenson said. "But you can't go back the way it was. My neighbors aren't the same. The houses aren't the same. My house wouldn't be the same, but my heart's in Joplin."
Judy's job comes first, but she says she'd be willing to share her story with others outside the hospital setting, as time allows.
Contact Judy Stevenson: email@example.com