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Survival story: Veterinarian recounts harrowing, life-threatening encounter with Joplin tornado


As his vehicle was lifted off the ground rotating, Dr. Jim Christman watched his stepdaughter's house leave its foundation and shatter.

Joplin, Mo. – It was about 5:40 p.m. Sunday. The 2005 Nissan Pathfinder’s windows exploded. As his vehicle was lifted off the ground and rotated, he watched his stepdaughter’s house leave its foundation and shatter.

More homes followed – thousands of them – block by painful block. Structure turned into chaos as a massive vortex swallowed another six miles of Joplin, Mo.

The 50-year-old veterinarian Jim Christman clutched the steering wheel with his left hand while his right sought to protect the head of his 11-year-old granddaughter he was there to drop off. Minutes passed, and the F5 tornado intensified.

“It was violent,” Christman tells DVM Newsmagazine. “You could just hear things breaking, snapping. You could hear debris hitting everything, cars, houses, trees.” He didn’t know it then, but wind speeds were estimated at 198 mph. And it was over as fast as it came.

Light rain followed the realization that Joplin, Mo. – home to 50,000 – had been victim to a tornado packing enough strength to throw an automobile the length of a football field. It ravaged nearly one-third of the city and killed 153 people, destroying thousands of houses and businesses and causing some $3 billion in damages. The May 22 tornado ranks as the 8th-most deadly in U.S. history.

Feeding off adrenaline and worry, Christman turned his attention to search and rescue – his family.

“My stepson and our 2-year-old grandchild were in the house when it hit. When the house went off its foundation, they went with it,” Christman recalls.

The next seconds seemed like an eternity, he says. But fortunately he found his bloodied stepson Justin alive and holding his living grandchild. They were okay but needed medical attention for the lacerations.

With tires punctured and windows blown, the 2005 Pathfinder was still running. The goal was to get the family to St. John’s Regional Medical Center for treatment. More tornado victims emerged. Christman’s neighbors, a woman and her son (who suffered a broken back from the tornado), got into the crippled Pathfinder as they made their way for help.

Within minutes they arrived at the heavily storm-damaged St. John's Medical Center only to learn that much of the seven-floor hospital was virtually incapacitated from the storm. The top two floors were completely destroyed. In the early stages of the recovery, ER nurses were waving the victims into the interior of the hospital to begin treatment. Christman left the hospital to search for his wife, knowing everyone he'd driven were now in safe hands.

He immediately went just a few blocks away to his veterinary clinic, which was destroyed – windows and doors blown away, every shingle and much of the plywood roof was gone as well. The exterior by the kennels suffered the most severe structural damage. Internally, the practice was in utter ruin. The estimated 15 animals in the facility all survived. While one dog escaped, it was later found.

It wasn’t long before Dr. Melinda Mayfield of Columbus, Kan., showed up to help with pet carriers. The surviving animals were all taken to safety. With a can of red spray paint, Christman left a simple message on the front of his practice – “pets okay.”

The next four hours he concentrated on locating other family members – his wife and daughter. Tragically, his 92-year-old grandmother perished in the storm. Joplin mourned many lives in those early days.

It was only later that Christman truly understood the magnitude of the tornado and how many lives were touched by it.

“You drive around here now and the houses are just unrecognizable. [In the early days,] I couldn’t tell where one street began and another ended.”

It has been just over three weeks since the tornado pounded Joplin. He will rebuild. In just two weeks, he and associate veterinarian Dr. Susan Sears, with the help of friends, family and other volunteers, removed truckloads of rubble from the hospital.

They saved as much of the medical equipment, medical records and contact information as they could. In the two weeks following the tornado, Christman and Sears retrofitted a trailer to start seeing patients again. While Sears tends to patients, Christman worked on the logistics tied to the clean-up with insurance companies, contractors and architects in the hope that the hospital can be rebuilt and open for business in the next three months.

“What I learned is how wonderful a country this is. And during a real time of crisis how people started to pull together,” Christman says. “I had so many people asking to volunteer. Red Cross was set up on our parking lot for the first week of the tornado. They were handing out shovels, rakes, coolers. Water would just be left on our doorstep. We would be here early in the morning, and people would just pull up and have breakfast ready for us. I had a lot of friends and family and staff members who came in to help, [but there were] also people I didn’t even know. People came from Arkansas, Oklahoma, Kansas and as far away as North Carolina and California. They might help for an hour or a whole day. It is hard work, shoveling insulation and sheet rock. It has amazed me how quickly people helped.”

Be sure to check out our comprehensive coverage in the July issue of DVM Newsmagazine.

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