Kimberly Marselas

The heroes were everywhere late Friday in Arkansas and Kentucky, as savage tornadoes bore down directly on at least four nursing homes.

As McKnight’s shared yesterday, one of the storm system’s most dramatic moments played out inside Monette Manor in Arkansas, where an LPN spotted an approaching twister through a window and quickly set off a life-saving transfer of residents to areas away from windows.

Staff could see debris rotating as the tornado broached front doors hastily barricaded by mattresses. In the nightmarish seconds that followed, evening shift team members used their bodies to shield residents and held onto their wheelchairs with all their might.

When it was over, the building was all-but demolished and one resident had died. But emergency planning consultants said Tuesday that the death toll could have been historic without prior emergency planning and the staff’s quick reaction.

In Mayfield, KY — where the storm’s most-talked about tornado leveled a candle factory and most of the town — the heroics started earlier in the day.

About 20 Mayfield Health and Rehabilitation staff members, aware of the weather forecast, practiced a tornado drill that afternoon, asking slippered residents to stage themselves in windowless hallways.

Four hours later, the destruction would be so total that insurance agents on the scene Monday called the building a complete loss, according to a full accounting of the annihilation in the Louisville Courier Journal.

Yet, not a single resident among 74 lost his or her life.

“Our staff were so prepared,” Sarah Poat Stewart, LNHA, regional director of operations for ClearView Healthcare Management, posted on LinkedIn this weekend. ClearView operates Mayfield and two other buildings in the storm’s path. “They followed their plan flawlessly. … I believe with all my heart that God and the staff at Mayfield Health and Rehabilitation protected our residents.”

She called it “divine intervention” that a wing that was flattened by the tornado recently had been cleared of eight residents to prepare for a construction project.

Stewart may attribute survival to a Higher Spirit. At McKnight’s, we know there was another kind of spirit involved here, too. It is the spirit that fills so many who choose to work in long-term care. It’s one of compassion, of devotion to caregiving, of a love for residents who are among society’s most vulnerable.

And that’s why we’ve this year added a Spirit Award to our McKnight’s Women of Distinction program. We want to recognize that spirit, to honor those of you who go above and beyond in the job’s most challenging moments — not for yourselves but in service to others.

Certainly, saving lives during a tornado would qualify most any candidate. But there’s no need to risk life and limb. We know that many of you care so deeply for your charges that you’d make the same choices as your colleagues in the South.

We’d simply like to lift up more stories about the everyday heroes among you and offer up our own spirited thanks.

To be sure, there are plenty of folks who deserve thanks at the many affected healthcare facilities in Arkansas, Illinois, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee. In her LinkedIn post, Stewart expressed her gratitude with a list that demonstrates the role nursing homes play in connecting their communities: 

A fellow administrator brought a chainsaw to help clear a path for buses and other vehicles to get access to the building.

Several churches and a school district sent vans and buses to help ferry survivors to safety. 

Health Department staff packaged medications that needed to move with patients.

Nearby facilities that scraped by with more cosmetic damage sent maintenance workers, while spouses, parents and children of residents and employees came to help with the move or to simply pass water and snacks.

Meanwhile, news came Tuesday from the Kentucky Health Care Association’s Betsy Johnson that seven staff members from Mayfield lost their homes Friday night. The association has established a tornado relief fund so that we can all help aide the recovery, even if offering just a little from afar.

Amid the devastation, these efforts to protect residents and, now, support those who risked everything for them is a powerful reminder that no man (or woman) is an island when part of a nursing home community.

Kimberly Marselas is senior editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.