The morning before the storm, 92-year-old World War II vetran, John Baggerly, was taken from his home by ambulance due to a fall in his home. He was admitted into St. Johns Medical Center on the sixth floor. Marlene Gooch tells the amazing story about how they found her then disabled father, roaming the streets of Joplin shortly after the destruction of the tornado.
In the wee early morning hours of May 22, 2011 my dad, 92-year-old John Baggerly, was picked up at his residence by ambulance due to a fall in his home. He was taken to St John’s Medical Center. After examination and several medical testings, he was admitted as a patient to the sixth floor.
Later that afternoon the new doctor who was to continue his care beginning the next day came in for an initial consultation. When he left, my mom and I decided to take a short break to go home and eat, get some clothing for my dad, and clean ourselves up.
While I was taking her home, about 25 blocks from the medical center, the first tornado sirens went off. I dropped her off and went on to my residence, an additional 20 blocks, to check on my daughter and young grandson. When I arrived home, the second siren went off. We were hurrying down the basement steps when the window over the steps flew out into my daughter’s face. She pushed my grandson over the steps into the basement to protect him. The roar of the wind was unbelievable.
As the winds stilled, Krissy and I turned around to go up the basement stairs to assess our home. As I ascended the stairs, I could see my grandson with his hands folded, eyes tightly shut, and humped over while he prayed earnestly (and loudly!). We found our house completely destroyed. A lot of the structure and contents of the next-door neighbor’s house had violently blown against our house. Our backyard was filled with debris that we did not recognize as being our property.
Neighbors checked on neighbors and rejoiced upon finding them uninjured and alive. Neighbors moved debris and branches in order to allow us a very small path to get out of the remains of our home. We began the walk to my mom’s house twenty blocks away. The sidewalks and streets were so filled with debris that there was only room to walk single file. There were scores of people walking-in silence and with sullen faces. One young man was walking with his parrot on his shoulder, but had no idea to where he could go, so he just walked. Two other young men were carrying a very old dog in a blanket and they placed their precious cargo down briefly for a rest. My daughter and I took turns carrying our little dog, as we could not allow Rascal to walk with the broken metal fragments and glass all over.
Our progress was slow but we arrived at my moms just after dark. Her electricity was off, so we sat in her kitchen under candle-light and listened to KZRG on her battery operated radio.
Concerns about my dad on the 6th floor of the hospital did cross my mind, but I excused them away believing that he was in a strong sturdy building under the protective eyes of professional medical personnel. We began collecting resources from the radio’s information on assistance we may need ourselves.
We began hearing more reports on the radio about the medical center being destroyed and the patients being evacuated to other locations. My daughter and I shielded the reports from my mom. We knew from the radio reports that traffic was not being allowed to the area around the hospital. Phone communication was almost impossible as what lines that remained were being overloaded. Both of our cars had been destroyed, but finally my daughter was able to get a ride to someone who had electricity to charge her phone.
Whenever she was able to get an open line, she made phone calls in search of her grandpa. No-one at the remaining standing hospital could give her information about his whereabouts other than he was not at their location. She started calling nearby hospitals, all ending without success.
At this point, expecting the worse, we gently told my mom about the destruction of the hospital and that we had been so far unable to locate the whereabouts of my dad.
Three days after the storm, my daughter called Cox Medical in Springfield which was 70 miles away from Joplin and asked if there was a John Baggerly there to which they responded there was. He was found walking the streets of Joplin. My daughter was told to call back in about an hour as the nurse attending him was not available at that time. She hung up and we discussed the news in disbelief. Walking the streets of Joplin? But, when we left him at 5:30 that Sunday afternoon, he had not been able to raise his legs or his arms, could not respond to any communication and was unaware of anything going on, dressed only in a diaper.
My daughter called the Cox Medical Center back asking “are you sure you have John Baggerly there?…92 years old?” We were told yes, that he had a hospital bracelet on from St John’s.
Later that evening, the attending nurse put my dad on the line. He was in good spirits, able to communicate completely and knew to whom it was talking. I will never forget the look on my daughter’s face as she talked to her beloved grandpa-the biggest smile on her face but with tears flowing down over the smile. Then I watched my mom on the phone talking to her husband of 68 years and sweetheart for 73 years. They had not been separated for this long in those 68 years. He was communicating effectively and the happiness in his voice radiated through the phone.
Now, we had to figure out how we were going to see him. We were without any means of transportation due to the tornado so we could not make the hour long drive. The hospital social worker promised to attempt to find an open facility in Joplin and make arrangements to have him transported back home.
It was not an easy task as all available beds in nearby hospitals and nursing home facilities had been filled with the injured from the tornado. After three additional days, an opening came up in Galena, Kansas and an ambulance transported him back to us.
We do not know the details of what happened to my dad during the tornado at the hospital or shortly thereafter. We do not know how he managed to be found walking the streets of Joplin where he was located. We only know that he had not been able to lift any portion of his body, that he was unable to communicate, open his eyes, or was aware of any of his surroundings. We know that he only had a diaper on and nothing else to protect his body from the elements or destruction. We don’t know how a man who was nearly blind was able to maneuver through the destruction.
What we do know is how difficult it was for us, in fairly good physical condition and with the ability to see clearly, to walk through the debris. Although he was badly bruised with small cuts, we don’t know how he did not suffer any broken bones or serious injuries. We know that his mind now was clear and he was able to communicate with us, still demonstrating the humor that we loved. Heaven’s angels had protected him and carried him out of the destruction. We had been given a miracle.
We cherished that miracle-enjoying each visit. Shortly it became apparent, however, that things were not right. My dad was not able to tell us his experiences in the tornado for he did not recognize the fact that he had been in a tornado, but he thought he was fighting the war again.
My dad was a medic in World War II, caring for the injured and then transporting them on stretchers to safety. As a member of the Army band, he also played taps for the ones who did not survive. Upon his release from service, he would often wake up in his sleep, according to my mom, screaming or crying from his experiences in the war. He would tell her to go back to bed, that he wanted to just sit alone for a little while. This happened many times throughout their marriage. At the time, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder was not recognized and therefore not treated.
His experience at St. John’s during the tornado brought back the images from fifty plus years ago and, coupled with the new images from the storm-strickened hospital, brought confusion to his weakened mind. He screamed and cried out as before from the memories. My dad, despite what he had experienced in the war, often said he did not regret enlisting and serving. At this point in his life, despite the old memories and the new experiences, he still thought he “had to go to work”.
He wanted to remain on the ground, sliding out of his wheelchair or hospital bed. He would gently push us over and shield us with his body to protect us from the “enemy.” He remained on sentry duty, but with his nearly blind condition, everything was a weapon, including the hospital equipment electrical cords hanging down the walls. He could not sleep. Then he would not eat or drink. The post-traumatic stress disorder hastened his decline, and we lost him two months later, on July 29, 2011.
My dad still had the soldier heart, but in a weakened body and mind. The tornado took this dear, gentle man from us, but we know his mind is now at peace in his heavenly home where we are promised there is no decay or destruction.