JOPLIN — Members of Freeman Health System’s clinical staff stood by her as Jennifer Donaldson came to the podium during Wednesday’s dedication of the Beacon of Hope Tornado Memorial.
Donaldson, an employee of the health system, was injured in the May 22, 2011, tornado which devastated much of this southwest Missouri community.
Donaldson told the crowd that she was at home when the tornado came through.
“I looked up to see the roof fly off of the house,” she remembered. “I will never forget the fierceness of the wind as it curled me into a ball, and I tried to avoid everything and watched as my feet were lifted off of the ground. The tornado plucked me out of the house. I landed about 360 feet away under three large trees. Friends and neighbors found me about two hours later, cut the trees off of me, put me on a door that they had found and brought me to Freeman. Though I worked with the nurses and physicians in the ER, my injuries were so severe that it took them about 15 minutes before anyone even recognized me.”
The tornado broke her neck, both shoulders, her left elbow, 11 ribs and her left leg.
“I recovered at Freeman for 30 days, before I was healed enough to return home,” she said. “I am eternally grateful to each of them [the nurses and physicians]. The words ‘thank you’ just don’t seem to be enough. How do you thank someone for saving your life? How do you thank them for giving you more birthdays, more Christmas mornings with your daughter? How do I thank someone for giving me another opportunity to laugh, to see the sunrise and to dream about my future? How do I thank someone for fighting for my life when I was unable to? Thank you just doesn’t seem to be enough, but I will say it anyway.”
Donaldson then looked at the clinical staff standing by her.
“From the bottom of my heart, I do thank each of you sincerely,” she said.
Prior to unveiling the memorial, Paula Baker, Freeman Health System president and chief executive officer, spoke about the tornado and the memorial.
“The patients came to us in waves, hundreds, hundreds and hundreds,” Baker said. “So many, that our 41-bed emergency room treated an estimated 750 patients within a matter of hours. Two hours after the storm struck, 883 Freeman employees had reported to duty. Twenty-two life-saving surgeries were performed in the first 12 hours after the storm. More than 800 X-rays and 400 CT scans were conducted. As the days past, 1,700 tornado victims sought help from Freeman Health System. The power of that event and the life altering changes that it brought to our community, to our patients and to our staff, those are the reasons why we are here tonight. This memorial is a place intended for reflection, a place to remember, to pray, to mourn, to give thanks for what we have, to reflect upon what we lost and to ask that someday, we are reunited with those the storm took from us.”
Page 2 of 2 - As the Freeman Voices, a choir made up of Freeman employees sang “Amazing Grace,” Donaldson and Baker unveiled the 14-foot tall memorial, with the words “compassion, bravery, selflessness, heroism and dedication” emblazed on the base of the memorial.
“I believe the Beacon of Hope Tornado Memorial is a positive symbol to Joplin,” Donaldson said. “It shows support, strength and stability that Freeman offers to the communities.”
“Each night at dusk, the memorial will glow,” Baker added. “Lighting up the darkness just as Freeman Hospital West did on May 22, 2011, when we provided the only source of light for miles around. We stood strong, an island in the darkness, a beacon of hope and light.”
After the event, Donaldson was asked by Neosho Daily News, “As a victim and an employee of Freeman Health System, how honored are you to see this memorial here in Joplin?”
“It means a great deal to me, just to know that someone is keeping alive the memories of those we lost and giving something to those of us that were impacted by it, something that we can remember without it being rubble,” she said. “It means a lot to me, it just shows that we are standing strong, continuing and moving on.”