Joplin’s KCU med school is one of city’s many bright spots to rise from the rubble of 2011 tornado

Updated: May. 18, 2021 at 8:54 PM CDT
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JOPLIN, Mo. (KY3) - As you drive around Joplin these days you notice a lot of new homes and businesses, the kind of full-scale remodeling and updating that becomes a necessity when over a third of the town was wiped out by a massive EF-5 tornado on May 22, 2011.

One of the more high-profile buildings destroyed that fateful evening was St. John’s Regional Medical Center, one of Joplin’s two major hospitals along with the Freeman Health Center.

St. John’s replacement, Mercy Hospital, opened in a different location in 2015 and the old location is now home to a memorial park.

But right next door to that park on the very same land where the St. John’s staff set up a temporary hospital following the tornado, there is now a med school opened up in 2017 by Kansas City University.

Ironically the KCU School of Medicine and Biosciences graduated its first class on the 10th anniversary of the Joplin tornado and several of the future physicians the school is training were teenagers in the town back in 2011 with vivid memories of how the horrific experience changed their lives.

”That was a scary time,” said 26 year-old Tanner Riscoe. “It really felt like a movie scene. It looked like people had thrown toy cars around.”

Tanner recalls that particular scene because his dad was an emergency room physician at St. John’s Regional Medical Center and when they arrived to see the destruction at the hospital, cars were tossed all over the parking lot and what was left of the multi-story building looked like a bomb had been set off from the inside.

Eager to help in any way he could, Tanner went inside the building to see if he could provide assistance.

“It was tough to see the hospital that I’d grew up in because everything was destroyed,” he recalled. “Some of the water pipes had burst so I was up to my knees in water.”

Tanner would end up at several different locations providing assistance that night joining a large contingent of first responders. It was an experience that only strengthened his resolve to follow in his father’s footsteps and become an emergency room physician himself.

So when the Kansas City University medical school came to Joplin in 2017, Tanner immediately jumped at the chance to follow his dreams by learning his craft in his hometown.

“All of these disasters have a way of making you feel a little hopeless,” he said. “But you also recognize the power of community and the power of looking on the bright side of life.”

25 year-old Blair Freed, a member of that inaugural graduating class who plans on becoming an OB/GYN, also credits the response to the Joplin tornado as a motivation for her entry into the medical field.

“I remember hearing stories about the heroic response from health care workers and every time I heard those stories I just had that feeling in my gut that I wanted to be be able to respond that way too,” she said. “For me that ended up being a factor that absolutely solidified my decision to go ahead and apply to medical school. Think how do we honor the people that were lost? And I think having a medical school here and being able to care for our community with people who are training locally is a huge part of that.”

Even though the KCU medical school didn’t arrive until six years after the tornado it still has its own legacy related to that historical day. The helipad from the old St. John’s hospital is still nearby and many people still remember the makeshift hospital that St. John’s operated on the very grounds where the med school now sits.

“I remember coming here when it was still the temporary Mercy hospital and seeing loved ones and family members,” Blair said. “And to then be able to turn around and study in these rooms and get my lectures in these rooms is just a really incredible full-circle moment that makes me very proud to be from Joplin and be able to do my training here.”

The med school faculty includes Dr. Ken Stewart, who was the head of St. John’s Emergency Room when the tornado hit. Stewart was just returning from a trip to Branson to celebrate his birthday (May 21) when he heard about the tornado on the radio. Stewart tried unsuccessfully to get to his hospital, so he instead set up a triage area at a Baptist church.

“I was still in a state of shock,” he said. “You have all the training and skills to know what to do but I had no equipment to do it with. But some paramedics and an ICU nurse showed up and provided what we needed to take care of people. The first patient that I saw was a lady. She had been impaled with a 2x4 in her pelvis. Fortunately the 2x4 was thrown at her with such great force that it actually prevented bleeding from occurring.”

And as someone who now teaches future medical leaders, he considers the land that the med school sits on as sacred ground.

“By being here and having lived through that experience I feel it gives me a perspective to share with the students so they know the legacy of their school,” Stewart said. “I didn’t come to Joplin to be involved in an EF-5 tornado but to be able to impact the local community and these physicians is a tremendous legacy and one that I take very seriously. My birthday is just before the tornado so when I celebrate my birthday I can’t help but think it. But it is a celebration in a way because it did create a medical school that didn’t exist before.”

Kansas City University isn’t done yet in Joplin. They’ve just started construction on a dental school that’s scheduled to open on the same property in 2023.

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