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Mayfield hospital leaders describe response after fatal tornado

Exterior of the the Jackson Purchase Medical Center in Mayfield, Ky.
Jackson Purchase Medical Center
Jackson Purchase Medical Center in Mayfield treated more than 80 people in the emergency room in the first 12 hours, many of them victims of the tornado.

Dave Anderson was at home Friday night when he got the alert that the storm he'd heard about all day had increased in intensity. 

Anderson, the CEO of Jackson Purchase Medical Center, checked the progression and realized a tornado had been on the ground for 108 miles and appeared to be heading straight for Mayfield, with just over 30 minutes to spare before it would arrive. He made some preparations at home and headed for the hospital. 

“I was very concerned – in fact I was almost reasonably certain – that it was going to hit the hospital,” Anderson said. “So I came in and made sure all the hallways were clear and no one was on the ground floor [and that] everyone had sought cover and then waited.”

Anderson arrived about 10 minutes before the storm hit Mayfield. When it did, all lights outside the hospital went out, and the facility went on emergency power mode. A few minutes later, a staff member let Anderson know it looked like the tornado had cleared Mayfield. The generators that would power the hospital for the next day and a half kicked on. 

“At that point it seemed like the hospital was going to be spared,” he said.

Anderson and others went to the emergency department to finish making preparations for the expected casualties. He got in touch with Fire Chief Jeremy Creason, who said that Mayfield Consumer Products – the candle factory where eight died – had been hit very hard and that “downtown was completely devastated,” Anderson said. 

At first, he said many of the “walking wounded” had sought help at city hall, which, powered by a backup generator, was initially the only place with lights. 

Thirty minutes after Anderson had arrived at the hospital, the patients started coming in – some by ambulance, some by car. Off-duty staff and others showed up unprompted, to help their colleagues care for the injured. 

“I had no idea how many patients we were seeing, just a continual stream,” Anderson said. “That kind of went on through the night until about 5 a.m., [then] the EMS calls stopped.” 

In the 12 hours after the storm, the hospital treated 85 patients in the ER – many of them victims of the tornado. Anderson said that’s about the number they’d usually see in a 24-hour period on a busy day. 

Dr. Scott Wilson, emergency room director, said that number may be lower than the actual total–many more people came in and received immediate care and may not have registered. 

In the first hour, they had more than 20 patients in the ER, and around 15 to 20 per hour in the ones that followed. 

“It was a horrible, horrible scene – almost like being in a wartime situation,” Wilson said. 

Even as day broke, “there were still people being brought into the emergency room, there were still people being found.”

Some were brought by EMS, police or neighbors found others and brought them in. 

Wilson said they had seven patients considered “Level 1” trauma: in a normal situation, they would have been stat-flighted or driven by ambulance to a Level 1 or 2 trauma hospital. 

But with the conditions that night and morning, roads impassable, and helicopters grounded during the storm, the Mayfield hospital kept them stable instead, for up to 10 hours until they could safely be transported. 

As of Tuesday, Anderson said they’d treated around 240 patients in the ER, more than half who had been injured in the storm. Wilson said more have arrived since, injured during cleanup efforts or had latent injuries from the storm. 

Anderson said when the storm hit, the 107-bed facility was fairly full, but only had three COVID-19 patients. 

He applauded the staff for the calm care they took during the disaster. 

“I was amazed at the teamwork, the professionalism, the complete lack of tension in the air,” he said. “Everybody just professionally worked together and took compassionate, amazing care of those patients that came through and made a rough night at least somewhat manageable.”

He said LifePoint Health, which owns the hospital, is assisting the roughly 10 staff members most directly impacted by the storm. The company this week announced a $1 million contribution to help Mayfield with recovery efforts. 

Wilson has lived in the area his whole life. He knows it probably won’t be the same; his community has lost a lot and it will take a long time to rebuild. 

But the care shown by health care staff, first responders and neighbors is indelible. 

“There was a tremendous amount of people that helped out all across west Kentucky. So many people volunteering and sacrificing their time and their efforts in the wake of a horrible natural event,” he said.

“I’m happy to be here today ... but I was a very small piece of a very big system that was working very hard to take care of a lot of people who were severely injured.”

Aprile Rickert is LPM's Southern Indiana reporter. Email Aprile at arickert@lpm.org.

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