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Louisville doctor clings to patient in terrifying tug-of-war

 

Winston Medical Center sustained significant damage after an EF-4 tornado tore through Winston County on Monday afternoon.

Winston Medical Center sustained significant damage after an EF-4 tornado tore through Winston County on Monday afternoon. Photo by: Mary Alice Weeks/Dispatch Staff

 

Carl Smith

 

LOUISVILLE -- As a last-second pivot positioned Winston Medical Center directly in the path of an EF-4 tornado Monday, long-time emergency room physician Mike Henry began running through his unit and warning patients to immediately hunker down and take cover. 

 

Henry barely had time to notify patients of the storm's sudden shift. He received notice moments earlier, Henry said, when a man ran through the ER's outside doors, screaming, "It's here!" 

 

WMC, a small, rural health care facility in Louisville, suffered extensive damage Monday afternoon after the tornado ran a south-to-north path through the town, demolishing homes, leveling industrial areas, destroying infrastructure and uprooting trees.  

 

Portions of the hospital's walls collapsed, while the tornado also caused a gas leak and extensive roof damage to the facility and other nearby medical buildings. 

 

Search and rescue operations continued in Louisville through Tuesday afternoon. Officials reported nine fatalities from Monday's storm, while search and rescue operations for missing people continued through the next day. 

 

Henry, who has worked at the hospital for about 20 years, was finishing a day shift Monday afternoon when storm cells strengthened and approached Winston County. The emergency and waiting rooms neared capacity as the weather bore down on the facility. Hospital officials moved patients to the hallway as a precaution, he said. 

 

"We kept getting reports and updates on the storm, but we thought we had a really good idea that it would miss us. All of a sudden, this thing turned, pivoted and came right at us," Henry said.  

 

The ER's back wall was blown out when the tornado hit, Henry said, and winds began whipping through the facility. Within moments, the storm began pulling a handcuffed female inmate's hospital gurney through the hallway and toward the hole. Henry and another person grabbed her and pulled her out of the vacuum to safety. 

 

"People always say that tornadoes sound like trains, and they're right -- It sounds like a train moving right through you," he said. "It hit and shook everything with an incredible, powerful force; then, it was done." 

 

Henry said the damage was almost catastrophic: small objects littered the ER, the roof leaked water and steel beams were twisted with what seemed to be minimal effort. Outside of the facility, power lines were downed, while cars in its parking lot were hurled through the air like toys to a nearby path of grass. 

 

Nearby neighborhoods were leveled, and many homes were severely damaged by falling trees. 

 

Doctors and nurses began assessing in-house patients immediately after the storm. No injuries were reported from those already at the facility. 

 

Injured Louisville and Winston County residents then began trickling into the hospital. 

 

WMC officials setup a makeshift triage unit to deal with those injuries. Henry said many arrived with trauma-based injuries, such as open fractures, collapsed lungs from rib fractures and cuts and scrapes. Several of the severely injured patients were stabilized locally and evacuated to area hospitals. 

 

Jackson's University of Mississippi Medical Center immediately dispatched a team of emergency physicians and medical supplies to support WMC, Henry said. OCH Regional Medical Center in Starkville and Baptist Memorial Hospital-Golden Triangle also prepared their facilities for an influx of patients. Hospitals from across the state sent numerous ambulances to Louisville to handle evacuations. 

 

"How much help we got was absolutely incredible," Henry said.  

 

Henry worked through his shift and treated patients through the early morning hours Tuesday. 

 

"Volunteers kept pouring in; everybody really stepped up to the plate," he said. "I never want to experience anything like that again."

 

Carl Smith covers Starkville and Oktibbeha County for The Dispatch. Follow him on Twitter @StarkDispatch

 

 

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