By Gary Pettus
Alex Fratesi grew up in Leland, less than an hour from Rolling Fork, a town she knew by such landmarks as Chuck’s Dairy Bar, the post office and the tree-shaded streets where people walked their dogs.
But, when she arrived in the Delta town Saturday morning, Chuck’s was a pile of rubble, the post office was gone and there were no trees.
“It’s not a town anymore,” said Fratesi, a fourth-year medical student at the University of Mississippi Medical Center. “Rolling Fork is just lumber. I didn’t used to be afraid of tornadoes. This has made me afraid.”
Fratesi is one of the many people with Medical Center connections who raced to Rolling Fork in Sharkey County and other Mississippi Delta towns this past weekend to help victims of the massive storm.
The efforts haven’t stopped, as noted by Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs and dean of the School of Medicine at UMMC, in a series of tweets posted Saturday night to UMMC’s Twitter account, @UMMCNews.
“On behalf of the University of Mississippi Medical Center, I want to express that we are heartbroken by the loss of life and destruction from the severe storms. Mississippians are hurting and we hurt with them,” she said.
“We have deployed UMMC resources to support the heroic local effort in collaboration with [the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency] and [the Mississippi State Department of Health], and we will monitor the medical and health care needs of the impacted areas to lend support in all ways possible.”
As of this morning, UMMC emergency response staff remain in Rolling Fork helping with communications and connectivity, staffing a command center, ensuring medical resources are available and providing a place for area residents to come if they are injured or ill, said Stephen Houck, director of the Mississippi Center for Emergency Services.
Today, 15 storm victims remained hospitalized at the Medical Center. Five are children and 10 are adults; two of the children and two of the adults are in intensive care.
Shortly after the tornado raked through Sharkey County, several medical students were among those who drove up from Jackson, including Fratesi; but medical aid wasn’t the only comfort Rolling Fork residents have sought, she said.
“There was a house with only one wall standing,” said Fratesi, who will soon start her general surgery residency at UMMC. “The people who lived there had lost their furniture, just about everything. They were trying to salvage the things they thought were most valuable: We helped them find their photos.”
Multiple counties absorbed destruction and lost lives; MEMA has confirmed 25 deaths. Injuries were uncountable. Fratesi, for one, encountered people with crushed limbs and an injured rescue worker who had also become dehydrated.
Those providing aid include UMMC nurse practitioners, physicians, administrators and others. AirCare has also been on the scene, with critical care paramedic Kevin King and his wife, transport RN ShyAnn King, working on the ground.
“AirCare has been great,” said Olive Branch emergency medicine physician Dr. Margaret Shepherd who, after a two-hour-and 45-minute drive, arrived in Rolling Fork at 2 a.m. Saturday and saw … nothing.
“Where there should have been lights, there weren’t any; I know the town by its buildings, but there weren’t any buildings,” said Shepherd, a 2017 School of Medicine graduate who also did her residency at UMMC.
By late Saturday morning, inside the National Guard Armory, she had seen about 10 people with lacerations, some with head injuries, and a baby suffering an asthma attack. Many other residents fled to the armory just for a place to take a breath, or because they had no power at home, Shepherd said.
“The patients have been great,” she said Saturday. “There was one man who had lost everything, including the refrigerator where he stored insulin. I wrote him a prescription, a month’s worth.
“I saw a lot of people with dirty lacerations. They had been trapped in their houses and had to basically crawl through the mud.”
Shepherd’s in-laws have a home in Rolling Fork; its roof is gone. “But their lake house is fine; that’s where they were at the time, thank God,” she said.
The Rolling Fork community is also a familiar place to UMMC’s School of Nursing, which had its mobile health clinic deployed Saturday.
“We’ve been in the Rolling Fork community for a decade, so we know families here and they know us,” said Dr. Anne Norwood, professor of nursing and associate dean for practice and partnerships.
“We are here for them in good times and bad. It’s part of our commitment to the community.”
A team headed by Dr. Carl Mangum, including faculty members Marlie Farrar, Dr. Chelsey Andries, Norwood, Dr. Lisa Haynie and Dr. Sarah McGraw, Children’s of Mississippi pediatric intensive care nurses Sarah Vaughan and Rebekah Scitzs, and patient services coordinator Treasie Williams have been “filling in where needed,” Norwood said.
Lisa Vaughan, executive director of budget and finance for the School of Nursing, is handling the financial and FEMA-related paperwork for the group.
Stationed at the National Guard Armory, the School of Nursing team has been helping provide care at Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital. “Our purpose is to fill in the gaps to help them,” Norwood said. “Our focus is to supplement what’s already available.”
While South Delta Middle School was closed today, the School of Nursing team that operates the clinic there was giving families food, water and supplies at the school.
Another focus of the School of Nursing is helping Rolling Fork residents get prescriptions refilled, Norwood said.
“If you’ve lost your home, you’ve likely lost your prescriptions,” Norwood said. “We’re working with Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital to provide refills for prescriptions including for insulin and high blood pressure medications.”
Also on hand, Dr. Philip Merideth, professor of psychiatry at UMMC, has been documenting the Medical Center’s response with his smartphone camera.
“I saw what had happened on the national news and drove here,” he said Saturday. “I’ve just been a reporter.”
The list of those he documented is long. Among the many praised for their work has been Dr. Matthew Bridges, an internal medicine resident at UMMC who grew up in Anguilla, just seven miles or so from Rolling Fork.
“Dr. Bridges was actually at the hospital right after the storm passed and helped the hospital staff take care of the most urgent injuries,” Merideth said. “He was one of the first from UMMC to arrive and helped the hospital staff get the most acute patients transferred out before the hospital had to close.”
For her part, Fratesi said her experience in Rolling Fork underlined the reasons she wanted to be a doctor.
“I knew Rolling Fork where I was supposed to be,” she said. “To show people there that there are others who care for them. We pick each other up; that’s what we do in Mississippi. The people in Rolling Fork know they aren’t alone.”