JOPLIN, Mo. —
When Jennifer Donaldson was carried on a door into the emergency room at Freeman Hospital West the night of the tornado, she was so badly injured that her co-workers there did not recognize her.
The tornado on May 22, 2011, picked up Donaldson and dropped her an estimated 360 feet from her home. She suffered a broken neck and breaks to both shoulders, her left elbow, 11 ribs and her left leg. She was found with her feet sticking out from underneath three trees that had fallen on her.
She was in the intensive care unit for nine days and in the hospital for 28 days. About 90 days after the storm, she was back to work as a program secretary in the emergency room.
On Wednesday, during the dedication of the Beacon of Hope Tornado Memorial at the hospital, she thanked the people who saved her life.
To her co-workers who stood at her side that night, during her recovery and again during the dedication ceremony, she said: “The words ‘thank you’ just don’t seem to be enough. How do I thank you for saving my life?
“How do I thank you for giving me more birthdays and more Christmas mornings with my daughter? How do I thank you for another opportunity to laugh and see the sun rise? How do I thank you for fighting for my life when I was unable to?”
With that, Donaldson and Paula Baker, president of Freeman Health System, pulled down a cloth to unveil the memorial while a choir of Freeman employees sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The sun, obscured by gray clouds, would break through.
Said Baker: “Joplin is proof that from tragedy can spring hope. That even the darkest night is followed by dawn. That a once-stormy sky can again be filled with the colors of the rainbow.”
More than 200 people turned out for the unveiling ceremony near the C.H. Bentlage Medical Center. Steeped in symbolism, the memorial will glow at dusk as Freeman West did the night of the tornado. When everything around it was without electrical power, Freeman’s generators created an island of light in a sea of darkness.
Baker said the light will be symbolic of “the strength, hope and healing that flooded from Freeman that night.”
Wrapped around the base of the memorial are the words compassion, bravery, selflessness, heroism and dedication, which represent the help that was given that night. The letters N, S, E and W are stamped into the concrete. They are symbolic of the help that came to Joplin from all directions and from all over the world.
Baker said the memorial, which took three months to construct, was designed by Joplin architect Chad Greer.
“This memorial is a place intended for reflection — a place to remember, to pray, to mourn, to give thanks for that which we have, to reflect upon that which we have lost, and to ask that someday we are reunited with those the storm took from us,” Baker said.
As the ceremony concluded, Debbie Leslie maneuvered her motorized wheelchair to the edge of the memorial.
“I was not affected by the tornado, but it hit me hard,” she said. “I lost five of my friends. I want to remember my friends.”
By the numbers
THE TORNADO ultimately killed 161 people and injured about 1,150 more. Freeman Hospital West treated 750 of them the night of the tornado. Within the first hours after the storm, surgeons performed 22 life-saving surgeries, and more than 800 X-rays and 400 CT scans were completed.