Sept. 26, 2013
Faith in the storm
OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine alumna credits training, faith for keeping patients safe during the Moore tornado.
|Stephanie Barnhart, D.O., stands in front of the tornado-damaged Moore Medical Center where she worked in the ER.|
May 20 started as a quiet day for Dr. Stephanie Barnhart, who treated a few patients in the emergency room at the Moore Medical Center.
“We had televisions on at the nurses’ station and in my office tuned to weather reports,” says Barnhart, a 2005 graduate of the OSU College of Osteopathic Medicine. “We knew a storm was coming, but we felt prepared and kept working on the patients we had in the ER.”
Television and radio stations were predicting an outbreak of severe weather. Moore had been under a tornado watch most of the day. Just before 3 p.m., a tornado touched down outside Newcastle, about 9 miles southwest of Moore. As it continued its path of destruction, the storm intensified into a monstrous EF-5, the most powerful category for tornadoes.
“At first we thought the storm was just going to pass us, but then I heard the weather forecasters issue a tornado emergency. I knew this situation was something different,” Barnhart says. “We saw on the news that the tornado had touched down, was getting larger and heading straight for us.”
Barnhart, the only physician on duty in the small community hospital’s emergency room, the nurses and a physician assistant quickly moved the few patients they were treating into a central area of the ER known as the Fast Track Clinic.
An Oklahoma native, Barnhart is no stranger to tornado season. Remembering the duck-and-cover drills from elementary school, Barnhart gathered her patients and staff together, pulling mattresses off hospital gurneys to protect them from any falling debris.
“Then the power went out,” she says. “There was a sound like the roar of a train barreling straight at you. My ears were popping, and there was a lot of pressure all around us. It seemed like it lasted for hours, but in reality it was probably less than a minute before it was over.”
Once the storm passed, Barnhart and the hospital staff distributed emergency flashlights so they could see and assess the damage.
“We were amazed that the clinic was relatively unscathed after hearing and feeling the tornado pass over us,” she says. “We didn’t know how bad the damage was to the hospital or to the rest of Moore until we stepped out of the clinic and saw the destruction outside.”
The second floor of the Moore Medical Center had been ripped off the building. Wires hung down from the first-floor ceiling. Windows were shattered. Equipment was knocked over. Dirt and debris littered the hallways.
“You could see directly outside where the lobby used to be,” she remembers. “When I stepped out of the hospital and saw the bowling alley across the street had been partly demolished, it really struck me how bad this tornado had been.”
After the immediate danger passed, Barnhart and the staff helped move the four patients from inside the emergency room to outside the hospital. They also helped staff and patients who had been sheltered in the cafeteria get outside as well. No one in the hospital was injured during the tornado.
“It’s pretty amazing that we were able to walk away from this destruction,” she says.
Seeing that people outside the hospital were injured, Barnhart jumped into action. Running on instinct and the disaster training she received during medical school at OSU and her emergency medicine residency program at Integris Southwest Medical Center in Oklahoma City, Barnhart set up a triage station to assess the injured. She treated several patients for broken bones, head injuries and cuts caused by flying debris.
Dr. Kayse Shrum, OSU Center for Health Sciences provost and dean of the College of Osteopathic Medicine, credits Barnhart’s quick thinking and dedication to her medical training and her passion for helping people.
“The emergency medicine residency program at Integris Southwest Medical Center, one of our partner institutions for graduate medical education, offers exceptional training for physicians in emergency and disaster situations,” Shrum says. “Dr. Barnhart’s concern for her patients’ safety through the storm and efforts afterward to treat people injured during the tornado are clearly the qualities of an extraordinary physician.”
According to Howard Barnett, president of OSU-Tulsa and OSU Center for Health Sciences, Dr. Barnhart’s heroic actions during the Moore tornado are indicative of the emphasis OSU places on caring for patients.
“If you ever find yourself in an emergency room in Oklahoma, you are probably being treated by a physician trained by OSU,” Barnett says. “Many of our graduates, like Dr. Barnhart, see the critical care that physicians provide in emergency situations and choose to enter that field.”
Barnhart was featured on CNN, where she was hailed as a hero for her efforts to protect her patients. She humbly gives credit to her faith for protecting those in the hospital.
“I was just doing my job,” she says. “I really believe God’s hand was on us, protecting us.”
After taking a well-earned vacation, Barnhart is back at work in the emergency departments for Norman Regional Health System, which owns the Moore Medical Center. Due to extensive damage from the tornado, the Moore Medical Center will be torn down, but Barnhart will continue to rotate between the emergency departments at the two other hospitals in the system.
Though the tornado may have rattled the community of Moore, Barnhart says she plans on staying in her home state and helping the community rebuild.
“I love Oklahoma, this is where my heart is,” Barnhart says. “The people of Oklahoma are strong. We will pick ourselves up and get through this together.”
This story originally ran in the Fall 2013 issue of STATE Magazine.