CONWAY, Ark. — Conway Regional Medical Center has seen its share of tornado trauma injuries over its 75-year history. As the hospital that serves a wide swath of rural central Arkansas, it is about as well prepared for a tornado as a medical facility in Tornado Alley can be.
But nothing has come close to the scene that unfolded there after Sunday’s killer tornado wove a path of destruction, sending thousands fleeing their homes and hundreds of the injured to Conway’s emergency room.
Dr. Jason Skinner was working his regular afternoon shift when word came that the twister had landed a direct hit on at least two nearby towns, Vilonia and Mayflower. The “all hands” page went out to the hospital staff, and Skinner, 40, helped set up three separate triage areas in the ER where they could send patients as they arrived, depending on the severity of their injuries: green, yellow or red.
“It was chaos,” Skinner said. “EMTs were triaging and tagging patients at the scene, and a lot of them were arriving in the backs of pickup trucks as well as ambulances. It was just an overwhelming number of patients coming all at once.”
Anesthesiologists, surgeons, doctors and nurses flooded the first-floor ER and waiting area. “Everything from chest tubes, X-rays, people being intubated and put on ventilators, it was all happened right here,” Skinner said Wednesday, gesturing to the now pin-drop-quiet hallway and waiting room.
Skinner said the first survivor he saw was an elderly man “bloodied and muddied from head to toe.” The man had been tossed from his truck trying to outrun the storm.
“When I saw how bad he was, I knew what was coming," Skinner said.
Among the patients he treated were Suzanne Wassom and her daughters, Lorelei and Sydney. Wassom’s husband, Dan, died in their home shielding their daughters.
Many of the approximately 100 patients treated at Conway had lived through the 2011 tornado that had severely damaged Vilonia. Harold Fowler was one of them, having been driving in his pickup three years ago when the tornado hit. “It dented the truck, but I was OK then,” Fowler said from his hospital bed. This time he fared much worse.
Fowler said he opened the door of his trailer Sunday after his children had been sending him texts warning him to evacuate, and saw the funnel cloud coming toward him. “I couldn’t believe it was happening again,” he said.
Within seconds, the trailer started shaking. The next thing he remembers is waking up in the grass 75 feet from his trailer, which was wrapped around a tree from the force of the tornado’s winds. His back was bruised, his ribs were cracked, his lung was punctured and his head was bleeding, but Fowler managed to walk to his truck and honk the horn until a neighbor heard him, picked him up and drove him to the hospital.
Fowler, a mechanical technician at a local factory, now counts himself among the luckiest residents of Vilonia.
“I survived a tornado twice,” he said with something between a smile and a wince. “The good Lord must like me.”
The internal injuries Fowler suffered are typical of a victim who was in the direct path of a tornado, Skinner said. But what makes working tornado aftermath so difficult is the breadth of injuries. “Lacerations, head injuries, extremity trauma, rib fractures — you can have literally anything walk through that door.”
Bambi Kellogg, 26, also survived the tornado in a trailer, where she sheltered in the bathtub with her 4-year-old daughter, Grace, as 165-mph winds rolled their home.
Kellogg's injuries include a broken collarbone and seriously lacerated leg. Grace suffered a broken hip.
"I told her she was a brave little girl," Kellogg said of Grace.