Tornado warnings echo across Nashville nearly every spring, yet in the twelve years I’d lived in Nashville, they had always proven a false alarm. Thus, when the weatherman doled out dire predictions for a huge twister in April of 1998, I rolled my eyes. No doubt it would be Peter (the weatherman) crying wolf again. But just to be prudent, I asked the mother of one of my staff members—a television junkie—to stay glued to her screen and call us at the earliest sign of a real tornado nearby.
If such an emergency occurred, I envisioned myself evacuating patients from the sixth floor to the basement with the utmost of professionalism–a regular Rudy Giuliani I'd be—a hero in the midst of crisis. Calm in the midst of disaster.
I returned to my physical exams, confident the warnings were hoopla over nothing.
Meanwhile, a nasty storm pummeled buckets of rain at the large picture windows in my office. Terri, our resident tornado expert—based solely on her previous years of living in Oklahoma—eyed the ominous grey cloud swirling outside the office. “I think we should move the patients to the basement just to be on the safe side,” she said, as worry etched across her forehead.
After eyeing the mile-wide gray cloud pressing toward us, I shrugged; since it didn’t look like the funnel cloud that flung Dorothy and Toto to the Land of Oz, I wasn’t convinced. “It’s probably just a storm cloud.” I suspected the nurses were trying to weasel their way out of patient callbacks piled high on their desks. “Besides,” I reminded Terri, “Amy’s mother promised she’d call with plenty of notice so we’re fine.” I patted her on the back and directed her back to the Mount Everett on her desk.
Five minutes later, Amy’s mother called and screamed, “Get to the basement–NOW! It’s already over Centennial Park and heading your way. Hurry, or you’re all gonna die!” The mother sobbed and shrieked, “RUN FOR YOUR LIVES!”
So much for plenty of notice! So much for a calm professional evacuation! I ran around the office shrieking like a banshee for everyone to hightail it to the basement. NOW! I felt like Sargent Carter shouting at Gomer Pyle.
The howling wind intensified as the twister swirled ever closer. Rain slammed against the windows. When a huge crack suddenly snaked down the large picture window in my office, I panicked and ran around the office shrieking like a banshee on Ritalin. And crack.
Two pitiful patients had to escape to the basement still wearing just paper towels (otherwise known as paper gowns.) They strove—unsuccessfully—to cover their bottoms and bosoms as best they could with the clothes they were carrying.
I shoved everyone toward the elevator. (“No, you don’t have time to re-dress.” “No, you don’t have time to go to the bathroom.” And my favorite, “Don’t worry about your lipstick!”)
Just as we got inside the elevator, the power died. Great, just great! When was rescuing an office full of half-naked people in the job description of a doctor? It was right up there with cleaning feces off the patient commode.
I pointed out the stairwell to the patients and they began their hike down six flights of stairs. Meanwhile, I could hear and even feel the strong wind blustering outside. The windows rattled as though convulsing in an epileptic fit. Terror took over all rational thought and I felt myself shaking. I wasn’t cut out for this knight-in-shining-amour stuff. If I’d wanted to run into burning buildings, I’d have become a fireman.
Just as I was about to dash down the stairs myself, I noticed one of my oldest and heaviest patients still sitting in the waiting room in a wheelchair. Her son had dropped her off for her appointment and she was supposed to call him when she was ready for a ride home. Swell. What was I supposed to do with her? Since she weighed over twice my weight, I couldn’t very well carry her down the stairs. Panic overtook me. How was I supposed to rescue her when I was falling apart at the seams myself? Lord Jesus, don't let me die!
I have to confess my first (and decidedly unchristian) thought was to just leave her there. Hadn’t she already lived a good, long life? But I still had two little kids who needed their mother. If my conscience hadn’t convicted me, I might well have abandoned the poor soul and dashed down the stairs to save my own hide—no point in both of us dying!
Of course, I stuffed the uncharitable thought and pushed her wheelchair to the stairs. With the help of two strong male patients, we managed to thump her wheelchair down the six flights of stairs, while she sputtered and cursed and hollered at us to go easy on her because she had a bad back. Nerves fried, I felt like snapping back at the ingrate, “We’re going to have bad backs too, after lugging you down all these stairs.”
We were quarantined to the basement for two long hours as multiple twisters tore through Nashville. I was a mental wreck. I hadn’t heard a word from my husband who was picking up our children from school during the very time the tornadoes ripped through Nashville. Meanwhile, my in-laws were in a camper right in the tornadoes path. Were they okay? The responsibility of evacuating patients while hearing on the radio about the devastation all over Nashville had sucked the life out of me. I just wanted to go home and hug my children and husband.
Instead, the lady in the wheelchair scowled and sputtered, “I didn’t come today to be “thrown” down the stairs like some dog toy. I came here to get my ear checked. It hurts and I’m not leaving until you check it.”
By now the emergency generator had kicked in and the elevators worked again. I wheeled her back to the sixth floor and into an exam room. Unfortunately, the generator did not include electrical power in my exam rooms. Thus, my otoscope wouldn’t light up and her ear canal was pitch black–I couldn’t see a thing. No way did I want to tell this crotchety woman that she had withstood a tornado, a bumpy ride down six flights of stairs in a wheelchair, and a two-hour wait in a dark, dank basement for nothing. I was too mentally drained to face her wrath if I told her the truth. Thus, I remarked, “My, my! I bet your ear really hurts.” Since I couldn’t tell if she had an ear infection or not, I took the side of caution and prescribed a decongestant and Amoxicillin and advised she see me back in ten days if she wasn’t better.
Thankfully, my family was fine. Nashville? Not so much! The Hermitage, (Andrew Jackson’s birthplace), St. Ann’s Episcopal church, a hospital building less than a half-mile from my office, along with six hundred businesses, and three hundred houses were all damaged or destroyed by the twister. In fact, all told, the tornado rang up over a hundred million dollars in property damage.
Never again will I blow off warnings about tornadoes and when Terri tells me to evacuate, I’ll race her to the basement.