Medical school built in ruins has its first graduates

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On the day Cali Clark, DO, graduated from high school, the country’s deadliest tornado in more than 60 years tore a 10-mile path through his hometown. About three-quarters of Joplin, Missouri, were damaged and 161 people died.

Ten years later, Clark graduated again. This time, she was in the first class of the School of Osteopathic Medicine at the University of Kansas City, in Joplin. The medical school was built in the aftermath of the tornado on the site of a hospital destroyed by the tornado.

“They had been talking about building a medical school in Joplin for about 10 years before he came,” Clark said. “But nothing ever materialized. And then the tornado happened.”

The costliest tornado in U.S. history

Joplin is near the Kansas and Oklahoma borders in southwestern Missouri. It is less than an hour’s drive from Arkansas. Tornadoes are common. “We call ourselves ‘Tornado Alley’, don’t we? We get quite a few tornado watches and warnings,” says Clark. “But generally, it’s F1s or F2s,” which are the lowest tornado categories on the Fujita intensity scale and “have nothing to worry about,” he says.

The tornado that hit Joplin on May 22, 2011 was of type F5, the most destructive. The wind speed was over 200 mph. As well as being one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history, it was the costliest, causing $ 2.8 billion in damage.


Joplin, Missouri, following the 2011 tornado.

More than 8,000 buildings were damaged, including St. John’s Regional Medical Center, one of two hospitals in the region. According to press reports, 183 patients were inside the hospital when the tornado hit; 25 were in the emergency room. About 100 employees were on duty that night.



The St. John’s Regional Medical Center was destroyed by a tornado.

The tornado devastated the facility. The windows exploded. Steel beams supporting the twisted roof. Water pipes broke, ceilings collapsed and back-up generators were ripped from their anchors. Five patients died. When the storm ended, the hospital was destroyed.

Clark’s family were lucky: their house suffered only minor damage. The wider community had been devastated: the tornado destroyed about 25% of the city and caused more than 75% damage, according to estimates by the National Institutes of Standards and Technology.

Like many others in Joplin, Clark and his family rolled up their sleeves and got to work, volunteering to clean up the debris and helping families dig through the rubble, searching for wedding albums and family photos. “It was those times when I felt that emotional side of what happened, because you’re almost in a state of shock – so many houses were razed, and it was hard to deal with that emotionally.” , she said. “But when you find a photo that a family really wanted to have again, it was a loving thing. It brought a little humanity.”

“The Pope had to approve this”

While Clark worked on his undergraduate degree, Joplin’s community leaders worked to finally bring a medical school to town. Marc Hahn, DO, president and CEO of the University of Kansas City (KCU), said that when he started as president of the university, he met with executives at Joplin, who “launched a passionate advocacy “for the KCU to consider building a satellite campus for a medical school. in their city.

“The need was great, there was no doubt about it,” Hahn said. “And Joplin’s physical location in the southwest corner of Missouri meant we could impact an area of ​​four states. But for us to do that, we would need help.”

Hahn said the KCU College of Osteopathic Medicine considers providing health care to underserved populations central to its mission, and more than 40% of college graduates go to work in rural areas of the region.

“The community really saw this as an opportunity to meet some of their medical and health care needs, but also saw it as an opportunity for economic development, and it was crucial for this community which was devastated by this. tornado, ”Hahn said. “And we saw that, and we also saw it as an opportunity for us to make a difference in healthcare.”

Once again, Joplin got to work.

The city has raised some $ 40 million to build the medical school, Hahn said. Mercy Hospital Joplin, which owned the St. John’s Hospital site, donated the land for the school. The Federal Emergency Management Agency had built a temporary hospital after the tornado. This building became the first home of the new medical college.



A new medical school has been built on the site of the hospital destroyed by the tornado.

“In many ways it was like the phoenix rising from the ashes of mythology,” Hahn said, “because that’s where the hospital was destroyed, and now from that new ashes comes this news. medicine School.”

The project even seemed to be sanctioned from above – because Mercy is a Catholic hospital, the donation of land required papal approval. “The Pope had to approve this,” Hahn said.

Heal a region

KCU Joplin admitted its first class of medical students in 2017. In May, they graduated 131 new doctors. The ceremony took place at the Missouri Southern Arena, the same location where Clark graduated from high school on the day of the tornado.

About 50 of them stay in Missouri for internships and residencies. “Our hope is that many of them will end up staying in the area to meet many medical needs, but time will tell,” Hahn said.

Clark intends to be one of those who remain. “When I was younger and going to college, I was like, ‘I’m going to get out of here’,” she said, “and I did that for 2 years. went to Springfield. But I wanted to be back where home was for me. ” She is currently completing an internal medicine residency at Freeman Health System, Joplin.



Cali Clark, DO, and her daughter at the New School’s first graduation ceremony.

“For me personally, what’s going to bring me joy is treating the people here in Joplin, the people who are here and who are such a big part of my life,” she said. “You can go anywhere and treat people with diabetes or heart failure, so I had to figure out what made the difference for me where I wanted to be. And for me, it was being with people who love me and who know my family and are the people I grew up with. “

In the decade since the tornado, Joplin literally rebuilt himself. Thousands of new homes and dozens of new businesses have been established. Hahn said that when he visits Joplin now, he sees new cafes, restaurants and a vibrant community. KCU continues to expand there as well. On May 22, the tenth anniversary of the tornado, the university opened a new dental college.

“We decided that a dental college made sense in rural Missouri,” he said. “And this innovation was part of the city-wide celebration of the community’s rebirth, and in 2 years we will also start accepting dental students.”

This college is under construction near the medical college on the same site as this hospital destroyed by the tornado.

Laura Arenschield is an award-winning Columbus-based reporter for MDedge. She has been writing about science and health for over a decade.

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