By Bob Ferguson
Special to The Globe
ST. LOUIS —
When the EF-5 tornado that hit Joplin became national news on the night of May 22, 2011, I, like millions of Americans, was transfixed by the scenes of death and devastation carried live on national television.
There is a strange mix of horror and detachment most viewers feel when confronted by natural disasters that occur far away — whether they be hurricanes in New Orleans or New York or tsunamis in Indonesia or Japan. We sympathize. We donate money to the Red Cross. But perhaps we also secretly feel relief that the destruction happened somewhere other than in our own communities.
Yet, when I started to see footage of the wreckage that surrounded St. John’s Hospital, the unfolding tragedy of the Joplin tornado became my tragedy, too. That’s because my father, Dr. Lewis Ferguson Jr., played an instrumental role in building St. John’s and, in turn, St. John’s played an instrumental role in my family’s life in Joplin.
We moved to Joplin in 1957, when I was 5 years old. My dad had been chief of surgery at the Veteran’s Administration Hospital in Clarksburg, W. Va., when we returned to the area to help care for my dying grandfather, who had spent his life as a country doctor in nearby Monett. The VA Hospital, which, among other services, trained surgical residents from the University of Cincinnati medical school, was a state-of-the-art facility. On the other hand, Joplin’s medical facilities back then were, to put it bluntly, anything but that.
All of that changed when the Sisters of Mercy decided to build the new St. John’s in 1964 — a hospital that would be a beacon of modern medicine shining in Southwest Missouri. My father was chief of the medical staff of St. John’s for two years, in 1964 and 65, and as such had input into the planning, construction and fundraising for the new hospital. My mother, Frances Ferguson, was president of the Jasper County Medical Society Women’s Auxiliary, a big supporter of the new hospital as well.
What opened on the scorching-hot summer day of June 27, 1965, was nothing less than a technological marvel. At that time, St. John’s was perhaps the most modern hospital in Missouri, and certainly one of the most modern in the Midwest, if not the entire country.
“The real beneficiaries of this hospital will be the patients it serves,” said my dad at the dedication, and he was right.
When I grew up in Joplin, medical conditions like cancer, brain trauma, neurological disorders and even psychiatric illnesses were either sent to Springfield or the medical schools in Columbia, St. Louis or Kansas City. Though there is a razor-thin line between confidence and arrogance, I think it’s fair to say the administrators and staff at the new St. John’s knew what it would become. St. John’s was destined to be one of the first hospitals in a smaller-sized city to turn into a regional medical center with the capacity to serve a much larger surrounding population. High-tech treatments like open-heart surgery, neurosurgery, diagnostic imaging and the latest in cancer treatments would no longer be limited to university medical centers.
As a kid, of course, my life in Joplin centered around my friends and my schools — Irving Elementary, South Junior High and the high school that would become Parkwood. But St. John’s was the high point of my father’s life work and the reason why my family spent 14 years in Southwest Missouri.
Two months after the tornado struck, I returned to Joplin to see the extent of the damage for myself. I followed the path of the storm, so I could get a sense of how the events of that day had unfolded. The scope of the damage was astounding — homes, businesses and lives had simply vanished into that terrible wind.
I saw what was left of my elementary school and my junior high. I saw the total destruction of what was now Joplin High School. I drove the streets of my friends’ neighborhoods; some were left intact, others annihilated.
And then I came to the top of a hill that showed where the storm had unleashed its full fury on St. John’s Regional Medical Center — that magnificent structure of which my father had been so proud. What I witnessed would have broken my parents’ hearts, because it did mine. But as I drove up to the wreckage, what I remembered wasn’t the hospital’s dedication ceremony, but rather the days my dad had spent as a patient in the hospital.
Four years after turning the first spade of dirt on the new building, he suffered a crippling stroke that left him paralyzed on his left side and unable to perform surgery again. A year after I left Joplin to attend college at Washington University in St. Louis, my family left Joplin to live in Kansas City, then Alexandria, La., where my dad worked again for the Veteran’s Administration as an admitting officer physician. We would never return as a family to Joplin, except to bury my father 10 years later.
Ernest Hemingway once wrote: “The world breaks everyone and afterwards many are stronger in the broken places.” Perhaps it is the broken places that are our common bond. What I share with those who experienced that terrible day is the appreciation of how, in an instant, our lives can change forever. My father’s sudden illness in 1969 changed the script of his life, and our family, forever. The deadliest tornado in 64 years changed the fate of Joplin and its residents forever, too.
Yet, time doesn’t stop — it continues its relentless march toward the future, with hope its destination. In 1964, the forward-looking vision of the administrators and staff of St. John’s resulted in modern medicine coming to Southwest Missouri. If the attitude of hope and confidence expressed at the hospital’s groundbreaking on that hot summer day almost 50 years ago is infused into the rebuilding of the hospital, as well as Joplin’s schools and neighborhoods, I have no doubt the community will prosper and thrive like it never has before.
Bob Ferguson lives in St. Louis.