The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO


May 21, 2012

Kathleen Sebelius, guest columnist: Hospitals show collaborative ingenuity

WASHINGTON — As the anniversary of the past year’s tornado approaches, I’m reminded of the visit I made to Joplin shortly after the storm to check on federal efforts to support the recovery.

I talked to parents and hospital staff, often in tears, who described how their lives had been turned upside down. Yet everyone I spoke to told me Joplin would come back stronger and better than ever.

You were right.

With strong leadership from the governor, local officials and community organizations, as well as sheer willpower and Midwestern determination, Joplin has made tremendous strides in healing and rebuilding.

This community has become a role model for the nation, not only in how everyone came together in the days after the tornado, but also in the resilience you have shown since then. Thanks to Joplin, we now know what community really means.

Amid the disaster last year, Joplin doctors, nurses, emergency personnel and other responders pulled together to quickly get people the help they needed. Years of training, planning and preparing for crises helped them evacuate patients from St. John’s Regional Health Center safely and care for people under unimaginable circumstances at both Freeman and St. John’s. This collaborative ingenuity continues today.

Just three weeks before the tornado hit, St. John’s had put in place an electronic health records system. In the immediate aftermath of the disaster, that move may have saved lives by allowing injured survivors to receive the right care, especially those taken to other hospitals. And that system has continued to prove useful, allowing providers to focus on their patients instead of spending precious time and untold expense re-creating their patient histories and treatment plans.

In the last year, Joplin has also begun to rebuild its health care infrastructure. St. John’s, now Mercy Hospital Joplin, has gone from using mobile medical tents purchased with federal grants to a temporary shelter to the current modular facility. And the permanent facility is being rebuilt in a way that enhances community health, including a park and walking facilities.

Freeman Health System  opened a new wing this spring so the community is better prepared for any immediate surges in demand for care. Together, the two competing hospitals have forged a cooperative agreement to support Joplin’s health care needs that is a model for other communities responding and recovering from disasters.

The larger Mercy hospital system has chipped in, too. With a commitment to keeping every hospital staff member employed, this network supported not only Joplin’s immediate health care needs but also the local economy.

As Americans, we are all proud to see Joplin coming back so quickly. Businesses that support health care like Walgreens and Wal-Mart pharmacies have rebuilt and reopened. Doctors‚ offices tied to the hospitals and temporary dental office buildings are open.

The community also pulled together with state and federal partners to reopen child care facilities for hundreds of children from Joplin families, and to open schools on time — even the demolished Joplin High School whose graduating class President Obama will address on Monday.

To support Joplin residents’ emotional recovery, crisis counselors have visited schools, homes and hundreds of churches with information, stress management and suicide prevention training, and links for helpful treatment.

And families also have been able to turn to the Crisis Counseling Program, a program funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and administered by our department. Crisis counselors will be attending anniversary events and, along the Walk of Unity route, you will find Ozark Community Partnership booths staffed by counselors who can provide prevention and counseling materials. During this difficult first anniversary, I hope the community will continue to take advantage of these services.

We know that recovery is a long-term process, and there is still much more to do as the community heals. But it’s inspiring to see so much progress in such a short time. And just as I did last spring during my visit, I can affirm again today that this administration and our department will continue to work with you in the coming months and years to ensure that Joplin comes back stronger than ever.

Kathleen Sebelius is the secretary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

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