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Vanderbilt alum among first on scene of deadly Alabama twister

By Nancy Humphrey
July 2011

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As Mark McIlwain, M.D., tended to victims from the April 27 F-5 tornado in Northwest Alabama, there were two things on his mind: the devastating injuries in both the living and the dead before him; and the safety of his 20-year-old daughter, MaryEllen, as the tornado barreled toward Tuscaloosa and the University of Alabama.

Shortly before 4 p.m. on that Wednesday, McIlwain, MD’90, HS’91, an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, was at home in Tuscumbia seeking shelter from the tornado with his wife, Connie, when he was called about mass casualties in nearby Phil Campbell, Ala. McIlwain, as chief of staff at Helen Keller Hospital in Sheffield, had helped write the area’s mass casualty plan and was first on the emergency notification list. He made three phone calls, activating the “phone tree,” and about 150 medical personnel were summoned to help.

Unaware of how crippling the tornado had been, McIlwain and Connie, his longtime office manager, drove 30 miles south “at breakneck speed” to Phil Campbell’s Rescue Squad building. Along the way he called MaryEllen, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, to let her know the tornado was headed her way. He told her to seek shelter in a bathtub in her condominium and to cover herself with a mattress.

“Just as I entered Phil Campbell, MaryEllen said she could hear the tornado coming, and the line went dead,” McIlwain said. “As I tended to the injured, the broken bones and the dead, everybody I touched, I felt like it was her,” he said, crying.

For 50 minutes he was the only physician on the scene; after the first hour, there was a team of six physicians, 12 nurses and 18 support staff.

“An F-5 tornado at 210 miles per hour can mutilate the human body, and nobody can be prepared for those type injuries,” he said. “People had limbs missing and severe head injuries. Bodies were impaled with wood. Those who were out in the storm came in with their clothes torn off, and some were rolled 75 to 100 yards in dirt before the storm let them go. The magnitude was simply unbelievable,” he said.

About an hour into treating the injured, McIlwain got an email on his phone. It read: “Daddy, I’m OK. Are you and Moma OK? MaryEllen.”

But there wasn’t time to pause. McIlwain triaged groups of patients, and then floated from group to group. Each ambulance leaving the scene was loaded with two critically injured patients, one less-injured victim, and a note listing needed supplies since McIlwain used all of his in 30 minutes. Patients were transported to three hospitals – Helen Keller in Sheffield, Shoals Hospital in Muscle Shoals or Eliza Coffee Memorial Hospital in Florence – after Russellville Hospital (the closest hospital) was filled in the first hour. McIlwain is on the staff of all three.

“A little boy was brought in with a broken, angulated arm, and I had run out of supplies. I remembered I had a National Geographic magazine in my truck, so I sent Connie to get it,” McIlwain said. “I splinted his arm with that magazine and tape. It choked me up. In everybody I treated, I saw my child, my mama, my daddy. These are not well-insured or wealthy people. But they are good, solid country people.”

As her husband treated the injured, Connie recorded their names, injuries and hospital in a notebook so there would be some record of where they were taken.

McIlwain said he was well-prepared in general surgery skills after training under Vanderbilt surgeons John Morris, M.D., John Sawyers, M.D., H. David Hall, M.D., Ralph Wesley, M.D., and Sam McKenna, M.D.

“As an oral and maxillofacial surgeon, I’ve seen a lot of face trauma. I’m trained in advanced trauma life support and am pretty good at handling trauma victims, but nothing could prepare me for the volume of patients that day and the severity of their injuries.”

McIlwain said that he kept going on pure adrenaline, and “knowing that these people needed me.”

By the time he left the scene at 1:30 a.m. on Thursday, there were 26 dead throughout Alabama, 18 of them in Phil Campbell.

McIlwain had to be at the hospital early Thursday morning to operate on some of the injured, then returned to Phil Campbell to take tetanus vaccine to the scene. On Thursday night, he went home, took a long bath and fell asleep on the sofa. He didn’t wake until Friday morning. “I kind of ran out of gas,” he said.

Estimating that he “laid hands” on 50 to 60 people, McIlwain said he “saw the best in people,” during the crisis. At one point, the emergency crew needed water and sheets for bandages. Family members of a victim walked through the broken glass of a nearby store, filled up carts and brought supplies back. Residents of neighboring, untouched communities came in mass to help. “It was gratifying to my soul to see how everyone pitched in.”

Later that week, on Saturday, McIlwain finally got to sit down with MaryEllen. It was only then that he realized how close the tornado came to his daughter. “She told me that she heard the tornado coming and the transformers exploding. It got within 150 yards of her. I broke down. I had to pray for a while.”

McIlwain said that recovery in the area is going to be a long time coming. “It’s not going to be over tomorrow.”

The tornado that hit Phil Campbell killed 26 people, injured more than 60 and devastated most of the town’s structures, totaling about $30 million in wind and water damage. In Tuscaloosa, the tornado killed 41 people, devastated vital parts of the city’s infrastructure, and destroyed or damaged more than 7,000 buildings. The twisters that twirled across Alabama killed 238 people in Alabama alone and another 100 or so in other states across the South.

Recovery may take years, but McIlwain sees it happening daily through an outpouring of goodwill – both individuals and groups of both friends and strangers doing their part.

And McIlwain is among a group of physicians associated with Helen Keller Hospital who has helped pay for a contractor to level a devastated medical practice of one of their colleagues, and to erect a modular building for the physician’s temporary practice. Keith Morrow, M.D., lost his clinics in both Phil Campbell and Hackleburg, Ala. The pharmacies in both towns were also destroyed. “People are continuing to do the right thing,” McIlwain said.


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