Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Sound Medicine Radio Hour

Out Chasing Storms, A Doctor Rediscovered The Mission Of Medicine

tornado
Jason Persoff
/

Dr. Jason Persoff has logged over 4,000 miles chasing storms, and he says it’s a spiritual experience. He never expected his hobby to reconnect him with his passion for medicine. In his normal life, Persoff is an internist at University of Colorado Hospital in Denver, where he treats patients who have smoked too much marijuana, among other daily duties. But every spring, he packs his camera and follows storms around the United States.

Persoff’s two worlds collided in on May 22, 2011. Persoff was chasing storms outside of Joplin, Missouri, when the weather took a dramatic turn. Early in the day, the storms forming around Joplin were fairly mild. Then “suddenly, out of nowhere, this beast of a storm formed just west of Joplin, and morphed into the deadliest tornado in US history in the past fifty years, in a very, very quick fashion,” Persoff remembers. He was giving it a wide berth, tracking the storm on radar and following it from behind, hoping for a good view from a safe distance.

By any measure, it was an exceptional storm. “It grew wider faster than it was moving," he says. "It started from maybe 10 yards wide and then went to three quarters of a mile wide in less than 45 seconds. The wind at that time was around 80 miles per hour around the back of the storm. There was lightening everywhere, and torrential rainfall, not unlike a hurricane, but with a lot more lightening.” Rated an EF5, or the strongest level, the tornado would claim the lives of 161 people and injure about 1,150 others, and cause $2.8 billion in property damage.

On the highway about a mile west of town, moments after the storm had passed through, Persoff spotted a car wreck, with several cars scattered on the side of the road. There was only one emergency vehicle, a police car. When Persoff told the officer he was a physician, “he indicated that he hoped I didn't work for one of the two hospitals in town, because it had been destroyed.” The officer gave Persoff directions to Freeman Hospital, which was unharmed. The building was on a ridge, and as they approached the building “You could see from this ridge, most of the town was laid out in front of us destroyed.,” Persoff says.

I got to just talk to patients and try and be a doctor. There was no billing or coding to worry about, there was just people working with people.

Persoff got to work in the trauma phase, where he saw treated patients with injuries that had only seen in textbooks: multiple rib fractures, impalements, and partially severed aortas. "I had the opportunity to be with patients at the end of their lives," he says, "and also save some lives. I was clearly out of my element.”

Then a nurse took him to a different part of the hospital, where he worked with patients who had been evacuated from St. Joseph’s Hospital, which was destroyed. “Some of them had witnessed the roof flying off their hospital minutes before,” he says. Their medical records had been lost in the storm.

Persoff says treating those patients was the greatest moment in his career. “It was actually the best night of medicine I ever had in my entire life,” he recalls. "There was really no paperwork. I got to just talk to patients and try and be a doctor. There was no billing or coding to worry about, there was just people working with people.”

He remembers being in awe of the efficiency with which the nurses assisting him worked: “I cannot even begin to tell you how rapidly we got the medicine patients needed, the radiographic studies, EKGs, labs. It was an amazing operation, so to that extent it felt very normal. On the other hand, it was out of control.” Persoff was the only doctor for the group of 40 to 50 patients from St. Joseph’s.

“One of the things that struck me deeply was [that] this town was destroyed, and the employees who were there for many, many hours while service was out had no idea how their own families had fared or if their house was still standing. And yet they worked so hard to help their [fellow] citizens. It was a very humbling moment,” he says. “That level of dedication, putting someone else's needs truly above their own was breathtaking. It was truly inspiring to me about how we as human beings can really be there for each other at the worst of times.”

Read Dr. Persoff's account of the day of the storm here, or see some of his stunning storm photography at stormdoctor.smugmug.com