Joplin Tornado: How it inspired two at KCU Joplin to serve the community’s medical needs

JOPLIN, Mo. –Kansas City university Joplin is Joplin’s first medical school. It’s something positive that emerged from one of the most tragic days in the town’s history. Not only did that day change the town forever, but it also inspired two completely different people to want to serve the people of Joplin.

“After the tornado sirens went off a friend of mine texted me and said ‘hey you need to know St. John’s hospital has a direct hit from the tornado and it’s pretty bad’, and so I was the medical director of the emergency department. and I knew that they were gonna need medical help, doctors, nurses,” said Doctor Kenneth Stewart.

He remembers the very moment his medical career changed.  

Doctor Stewart tried to make his way toward what was, at the time, St. Johns. but debris had traffic on 1-44 at a standstill.

“So I put on my flashers and drove down the shoulder of the highway…I figured I could get to St. Johns’s Hospital by going the back roads.”

After going as far as he could by car, he stumbled upon Wildwood Baptist Church.

“All of a sudden I hear this voice that says Dr. Stewart, and I looked up and it’s the youth pastor of Wildwood Baptist Church…and I said Lou can we use your church as a triage area?” 

His first patient was a woman, carried in on a door, 

“She was unconscious and she had a piece of two by four in her pelvis.”

Soon others arrived to help.

“It just seemed like no time at all, and I heard this helicopter crew approaching and they were like they also recognized me from the hospital…and I said she’s gotta go to the operating room right away or she’s gonna bleed to death.” 

The woman was flown to Springfield and survived.

Dr. Stewart continued to treat people until the sun came up.

“And so I probably stayed there until 9:00 that morning, just exhausted the sun had come up, it was the first time I was able to see the extent of the tornado damage. It just boggles my mind, I couldn’t recognize anything. that’s when I saw the devastation at St. John’s Hospital for the first time.”

While Doctor Stewart was treating people so were Doctor Jim Riscoe and his 16-year-old son, Tanner.

Even as a teenager, Tanner was able to help.

“A couple of nurses were driving by in a truck and I hopped in the back of the truck with them, and we kind of meandered our way through the wreckage, all the way to Memorial Hall where we had set up a medical triage center,” Riscoe said.

He and his father worked for days on end.

“Throughout that night, into the next day, dad and I came back home maybe forty-eight to seventy-two hours after the tornado initially hit.” 

Instead of deterring Tanner from a career in medicine, he was more determined than ever.

“That night everyone really came together and within the next days weeks and months and years our town rebuilt and grew back even stronger. Seeing the effects of that night and feeling in a lot of ways hopeless, that was a big part of growing up and kind of has directed my path moving forward.” 

Eventually, Memorial Hall was closed as a triage center, Mercy Hospital opened again to treat patients in tents, then trailers, and eventually a prefabricated building, that is now home to Kansas City University Joplin.  

Doctor Stewart is now a teacher at KCU, and one of his students is set to become Dr. Riscoe, Joplin’s very own KCU graduate in 2022

“Following training I hope to return here around the area to be able to practice….its my hometown, it’s a great place to raise a family,” said Riscoe.