Students risk tornado to help heart hospital

When Jake Vaca heard Avera Heart Hospital had suffered major damage during Tuesday night’s tornados, he immediately headed toward the disaster area with Andrew Sweeter. 

On Tuesday night, one of three confirmed EF-2 tornados hit the Avera Heart Hospital, which is located on 69th Street off of I-229, spanned 50 yards on a 0.6 mile path, according to the Sioux Falls National Weather Service. Its strong, 130 mph winds removed the roof of the hospital.

“It feels like what you should do when there’s a disaster. Almost everyone in the city feels the same way in that they wanna help the community as best as they can, whether it’s helping clean up fallen debris, torn houses, or [helping out with] patient care.”

Vaca, a pre-med biology major, said he has been working at the Avera McKennan main campus for nine months now. Sweeter, a senior studying biology and Spanish, began working at the Heart Hospital during summer 2019.

“The power went out at my college house and my roommates and I were all in our basement with some candles lit, having a good time, and then I got a call from Jake,” Sweeter said. 

Vaca said he called his friend around 11:40 p.m. Tuesday when he first heard of the damage and worsening weather conditions.

“We were pretty in the dark on what [the damages] meant to the structural integrity of the hospital and the safety of everybody,” Sweeter said. 

Sweeter said he called one of the Avera Heart Hospital resource nurses and asked if they needed any help. The nurse said “yes,” and they were immediately on their way.

Their commute wasn’t an easy one. Sweeter said it took around 25 minutes to get from Minnesota Avenue to the hospital. 

“There were streetlights down in the middle of roads, park benches and dividers, cones, debris, tree [branches] just strewn all over the roads,” Sweeter said. “Some roads were so flooded that we couldn’t pass them.”

The emergency department was full when the friends arrived, according to Sweeter. He said there were rooms full of people and patients in the waiting rooms getting IVs because there wasn’t enough space for them in the emergency room. 

Sweeter said the ambulance bay doors were blown open, windows were shattered in the skywalk between the Avera Behavioral Health Center and the Heart Hospital. Broken tree limbs had damaged cars parked outside. 

“As soon as we got there, it was hard to know what to do,” Vaca said. “Immediately, we went up to the floor where Andrew typically worked and was comfortable with. [We] had to figure out what was going on, what needed to be done and we eventually got sent down to the ED because that’s where they were in most need.”

Vaca said that he and Sweeter were both impressed with the way the Avera team handled the chaos. 

Before Sweeter and Vaca arrived, tornado precautions had included moving all patients in beds out into the hallway with the doors closed. 

“Luckily, all our patients were protected before the storm hit, but still some rooms got busted in,” said Sweeter.

According to Keloland, over 30 patients were taken to the Avera McKennan’s main campus from Avera Behavioral Health. The heart hospital also accommodated a few patients Tuesday night, Vaca said. 

Child and adolescent patients were moved to Avera McKennan’s main campus and Avera staff are working with state mental health officials to house the 60-70 displaced adults, according to the Argus Leader.

“The Avera Heart Hospital is the best job I’ve ever had,” Sweeter said. “One of the coolest things was that [in the three hours after we got there], I think like 15-20 nurses and doctors showed up. All of them individually risked the roads to come in and help.” 

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