The Norman Transcript

November 13, 2013

Windy week

By Joy Hampton
The Norman Transcript

MOORE — Richie Splitt started work as Moore Medical Center’s top executive on May 13. Seven days later on May 20, an EF-5 tornado destroyed the Moore facility along with the cars of every Moore Medical employee and doctor who was at the hospital that day.

Splitt came to the Norman Regional Health System with 26 years of experience. As the chief administrator for MMC and the new HealthPlex in Norman, he spent the first week on the job just meeting the employees under his care.

“That week of the 13th through the 17th was hospital week, so we had a number of things going on,” Splitt said. “Employee forums and the ‘introduction of Richie’ to the staffs of Moore Medical and the HealthPlex.”

The events were happy affairs, some involving burgers or popcorn, he remembered. As a native Oklahoman who had grown up in south Oklahoma City, attended Moore schools, and worked in the Oklahoma City greater metro health community, he saw many familiar faces that first week on the job.

“It was a very welcoming staff,” he said. “It felt like home.”

On May 20, Splitt was attending an executive meeting at Norman Regional Health System’s Porter campus. The leadership staff heard the weather warnings and had a television on as a precaution. As the severity of the storm became clear, attention shifted to the events unfolding on TV.

“We abandoned our meeting and began watching the storm as it developed,” Splitt said.

Being new on the job, Splitt didn’t yet have cell phone numbers of his staff, but he found a number and called to check on his team at Moore Medical.

“We were on alert — that stage where you prepare to move the patients,” he said. “I was assured we were in good order.”

Volunteers had been sent home at noon. All patients except a woman in labor had been moved to the cafeteria. Three staff members stayed with her and sheltered in place.

“I did not know yet, they had taken those actions,” he said. “The television was saying Warren Theatre was going to take a direct hit, but there was nothing about the hospital.”

During the meeting, the executives went into incident command. Chief Nurse Nancy Brown, Head Pharmacist Darin Smith and Splitt jumped into his car and drove toward Moore behind the path of the storm.

“We could see that black wall move across the horizon,” he said. “We knew it was moving right toward our facility.”

At one point, the sky cleared and Splitt said they could clearly see a funnel cloud drop down. They watched it track then saw it disappear over Lake Draper.

“We got across I-35 as we’re watching this, and a silence falls over the car,” he said.

Splitt said they knew the effects “had to be terrible” but they were “helpless in the car.”

The team reached 24th Street and encountered heavy traffic. Splitt got in behind an ambulance and followed its trail moving in the wrong direction against traffic. After he lost that ambulance, another passed and he jumped behind it.

“About 10 to 15 minutes after the tornado hit Moore Medical Center, we arrived,” he said.

The scene was destruction and debris. Brown would later tell the health system board her first thoughts upon seeing the devastation were that there would be fatalities. Splitt said Brown didn’t take two steps out of the car before she was identified as a nurse and asked to help the injured.

Splitt’s first concern was the patients and staff inside the remains of Moore Medical. At the sight of a familiar face, he made contact and was amazed to learn there were no fatalities or serious injuries among the few hundred patients, staff and members of the public who had sheltered inside the now devastated hospital.

Triage was set up at the Warren Theatre. Splitt was particularly moved by the story of three Moore Medical staff members who stayed with a patient in labor and protected her during the tornado.

“They held hands and they prayed. The louder the storm got the louder their conversation with God became,” he said. “They said they heard a loud, high pitched noise and suddenly the door to the suite swings open and it pushes out the wall to that room.”

He said they closed their eyes and when they opened them again they could see outside to Warren Theatre.

“Their courage and caring was evident but also evident was God’s hand,” Splitt said.

Moore resident Kelly Wells is the Norman Regional Health System’s manager of corporate communications. Wells had spoken to her husband that day and knew he had picked up their children from Broadmoore Elementary and that her family was safe. But Wells did not know if her home, which was near the path of the storm, was safe.

She had no time to think about her house, however, as the leadership team at the command center went into action coordinating communication and response efforts. Wells said preparations were under way to deal with the aftermath even as the tornado approached.

“We got the Code Black, the alert we get, that we needed to set up a command post,” Wells said.

Shane Cohea, the health system’s emergency coordinator, was working closely with someone with the weather service who warned that MMC could take a direct hit, Wells said.

“You have no control over the situation and you’re just hoping for the best,” Wells said. “As they started talking about all the schools, it starts really hitting home. For me, the sadness started setting in, but you realize you have to get ready because at that point you realize you’re going to be getting people.”

By people, Wells meant trauma care patients. The hospital had already seen an influx of patients coming in from the east Norman, Little Axe, and Shawnee following the May 19 tornado.

Meanwhile, hospital team members went into the demolished Moore Medical structure to retrieve wheel chairs, oxygen and other supplies for the triage center.

Back at the command center, communication proved challenging in the wake of the tornado, but eventually the word came that everyone at Moore Medical was safe. Wells said that was a huge relief.

Then patients started coming in.

“We had a kid here that had no parents,” Wells said.

She said the team went to the media and got help finding the child’s family. During the chaos following the tornado, many parents were having trouble reaching their children because of traffic jams.

Doctors and staff at Moore Medical all lost their cars during the tornado. Two doctors desperately needed to return home and check on their children. Splitt gave them his car keys and texted his wife not to worry when the car showed up without him. He remained at the Moore Medical site, talking with people in the community until midnight. He then hitched a ride with an ambulance and got dropped off near his parents’ house. A quick call to his parents was made, and they picked him up and drove him home.

For the next few days, Wells practically lived at the Porter campus as she worked with the leadership team to resolve problems and keep information flowing. Most of the leadership were working round the clock, she said. Her home was intact but had no power or water.

Splitt said once he knew his people at Moore Medical were safe, the questions became, “What do we do now? Where do we go tomorrow?”

He encouraged staff to try to go home and not worry about work.

“That was my job,” he said.

Forty-four staff members experienced total loss of their homes, and 25 were displaced from apartments or place of residence. Eight volunteers also lost homes.

“We had 125 employees that lost cars,” he said.

The tornado hit on a Monday. On Wednesday, Splitt and NRHS CEO David Whitaker called a meeting with MMC staff and the leadership team. They shared stories, cried together, laughed together and began the healing process.

Whitaker assured each of them they still had a job within the system, Splitt said. Whatever else they had to worry about, a paycheck was not going to be a concern.

“Not a single Moore Medical Center employee has been without a paycheck since May 20,” Splitt said.

Those who did not move to the HealthPlex or Norman Regional moved, of their own volition, to other jobs.

Employees and leadership from hospitals around the country sent in donations.

The hospital received donations totaling around $400,000 to help employees with insurance deductibles and other needs. The heath system covered the cost of car rentals for those who lost vehicles.

Leadership had a conference call with Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo., to learn how staff at Mercy handled the loss following the tornado that hit that city.

“You can’t be prepared emotionally for what we experienced on May 20th, but my training as a leader with 26 years in health care prepared me for the response on that day,” Splitt said.

As the rebuilding process started, yet another tornado hit the Oklahoma City and Moore area on May 31. It was a violent spring, but Splitt had lived through violence before.

Splitt lived in the community where the 1999 tornado hit. His home was just missed but many friends lost homes. He spent that night at the hospital where he worked in south Oklahoma City and he saw things he’ll never forget.

“I vividly remember the lady with a piece of wood stuck in her neck,” he said. “When you see those images, they don’t go away.”

On April 19, 1995, he worked at Southwest Medical in the ER and was directly involved with patient care when the Murrah bombing took place. He still remembers the “beautiful children,” many covered in blood, who were brought in for treatment that day.

“Living through those tragedies prepared me, but it’s different every time and fresh and vivid every time,” he said.  

On Oct. 28, the Norman Regional Hospital Authority approved plans to rebuild a new healthcare facility in Moore and to expand services at the HelathPlex to meet the needs of the area. The HealthPlex is located along Tecumseh Road just west of Interstate 35 and about two miles from Moore city limits.

The new facility at Moore will include emergency services, diagnostic imaging, physical medicine — physical, occupational and speech therapy — laboratory services, physician offices, community education and meeting space and a wellness lifestyle center. The design will carry the same modern look as the HealthPlex with plenty of natural lighting. The campus will include a tornado shelter for patients and employees.

In the meantime, a temporary facility with emergency, lab and outpatient services will serve the community. That temporary facility — constructed by the same company that built Joplin’s temporary hospital — will open in late November or early December.

Joy Hampton

366-3544

jhampton@

normantranscript.com

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