• Defining Moment

    Swirl of Emotions

    Surviving a tornado reinforced a PT's career path.

    Listen to 'Defining Moment'

    I earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry in May 2000 and got the opportunity to move from my native Oklahoma to Massachusetts for a research internship with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Biomechatronics Group. My first week there, I watched my new boss, Hugh Herr, run a bionic knee trial at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital for people with amputations. As I observed physical therapists (PTs) teaching recipients to use the technology, I knew I'd found my passion.

    A couple years later, I moved back to Oklahoma and went back to school to become a PT. Upon graduation, I was hired by Norman Regional Health System to work in the acute and outpatient settings—a dream job for a new graduate who liked both areas of practice and didn't want to have to choose between them.

    During my first year I was named physical therapy clinic coordinator at the Norman Regional location in Moore, Oklahoma. It had an outpatient clinic and a small inpatient hospital. I grew in my professional skills as the facility itself expanded, and I worked beside staff who I count among my best friends to this day.

    Over the years, a few of my coworkers moved on, but their successors became my new friends. I found my work to be exciting and challenging. The patients gave me energy and purpose. I loved watching how even the slightest physical gains often resulted in huge functional improvements. My coworkers and patients felt like family, which made my professional life all the happier and more satisfying.

    In fact, I honestly didn't want anything to change. On May 20, 2013, however, my professional life got turned upside down. Literally! If you've heard of Moore, Oklahoma, it's probably because 5 years ago the national news media was all over the story of how an F5 tornado with peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour tore through the town. It tore through our Moore facility, as well.

    In Oklahoma, tracking severe weather is common. Our local meteorologists are highly trained and experienced in this. They had been issuing warnings for days of the potential for severe weather on May 20, including large and long-tracking tornadoes. They were right. The storms fired up much earlier than we typically see, however. This meant that many people were at work and school when the tornado hit, rather than sheltered in their homes.

    Thanks to frequent training, however, we were as prepared as we could be. Norman Regional's Moore Medical Center hospital had established a team to convene in a command center, poised to take whatever steps were necessary to keep patients, staff, visitors, and others safe whenever severe weather threatened. That day, they made the lifesaving decision to call a code black, which alerted everyone at the facility to take shelter even before warnings were issued countywide. The heads up gave hospital staff time to get all patients to the designated areas deemed the safest. Staff even broke protocol that day by bring patients down to the bottom floor of the hospital.

    What followed were the longest 19 minutes of our lives. We sat huddled in our work cafeteria—next to our patients, coworkers, and hundreds of people from the nearby community who'd sought safety with us. We watched the TV news as the tornado formed and tracked directly toward us. We feared for ourselves, our families and friends, and our town. There was little we could do, however, but wait, pray, and hope.

    The power went out, though we had a little light from a backup generator. All we knew was that the tornado was gunning for us. Our cell phones didn't work well, so we were unable to tell our loved ones—perhaps for the last time—that we loved them. What was even worse was that we didn't know for certain whether they themselves were in safe locations.

    We felt the air pressure change and began to hear the massive tornado bear down on our building. My coworkers and I sat in tucked positions under a table. We linked arms so that we could hold onto each other in the event of raging winds. A heroic colleague of mine spotted a woman in a wheelchair who couldn't take cover by herself. He went over to her, transferred her to the floor, and helped protect her head.

    The air pressure was so intense that I felt as if an elephant was sitting on me. Others tell me that there were incredibly loud noises as the tornado bore down, but I don't remember that. It had to have been loud, though, because it wasn't just that the tornado created debris the size of cars. Actual cars were lifted off the ground and thrown into our building.

    When the siege finally ended, we arose and discovered, to our great and relieved surprise, that the cafeteria had been left relatively unscathed, and that none of us sheltered there had sustained a serious injury.

    Beyond the cafeteria itself, though, was utter destruction. Our planned exit route was completely blocked by overturned cars and rubble. We worked as a team to determine the best and safest way out of the building. The thing I most remember is all the former patients who rushed to the hospital to dig us out to safety. We had helped them in a time of need in their lives, and they'd come to us to return the favor. Their faces were so welcome! Their presence meant the world to us.

    The next day, the hospital leadership called a debriefing to give us a chance to share our stories and emotions. They immediately assured us that we still had jobs, even though we no longer had a place to work. They followed through, too—quickly absorbing us into other health system locations. That made me prouder than ever to work where I do.

    Within 3 days of the tornado, my immediate coworkers and I were seeing patients at Norman Regional's Physical Performance Center in Norman. Our patients drove over from Moore—which touched us, as it wasn't an easy drive given all the destruction the tornado had wrought. Twenty-four people had been killed on May 20, and property damage was estimated at $2 billion.

    I still work for Norman Regional Health System. Its core values align with my own, and I enjoy serving a community that is as dedicated to us as we are to them. I manage Norman Regional Moore Physical Rehabilitation—which has been rebuilt and is thriving—as well as the health care system's Physical Performance Center and physical rehabilitation at the Norman Regional HealthPlex specialty hospital.

    I continue to provide direct patient care on occasion, which is important to me. Being in management, however, lets me ensure that staff feel the same level of caring, and feel as reassured about their job security, as I did 5 years ago, when I was at my most vulnerable. As job motivation, that's as powerful as any force of nature.

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    Sara Merchant, PT, MPT, is an administrator at Norman Regional Health System in Oklahoma  

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