Travel was extremely difficult on Dec. 20, just five days before Christmas. A winter storm had dumped several inches of snow on Iowa and the gusty winds created visibility problems, making the already slippery roads treacherous that morning.
That was the scenario for a multiple vehicle accident on Interstate 35 near the 150 mile marker. Twenty-five vehicles were reported to be involved in the accident which left two people dead and many injured.
While most people around Hamilton County - and the world - saw the mangled cars and trucks in photographs, few saw the efforts of the first responders and the health care professionals who stood ready to offer aid and comfort to the injured accident victims and their families.
Daily Freeman-Journal photo by Anne Blankenship
This trauma room in the emergency department at Van Diest Medical Center was where several of the victims from the multiple-vehicle accident on Dec. 20 were taken. When word was received that patients were on the way, staff members jumped into action, according to hospital officials.
"There were all of these stories that surfaced," according to Lori Foster, Van Diest Medical Center public relations director. "We have an excellent staff here, but there were so many others who were touched by the events of that day and helped out in any way they could."
Foster said Webster City can tell a story of "goodness with an outpouring of compassion" coming from not just the medical community but also the business community and local residents in response to the massive accident.
Eight individuals were transported to Van Diest Medical Center. Three were admitted for treatment and one patient died of her injuries.
Margaret Dingman, a nurse manager, said the first call came in just after 10 a.m.
"It was a typical Thursday morning," she said, "but we had already been dealing with short staff because of the weather and bad roads."
Word of mouth about the accident had already spread through the hospital before a trauma alert was called.
"We had heard first that it was two vehicles, then four vehicles and from there they said it was a massive accident," she said. That's when the staff began organizing supplies, equipment and personnel. They knew that soon they would have injured patients arriving.
"We were lined up and waiting. Many of the ER nurses were called into assist, since we didn't know how many we needed. Pharmacy was on stand-by. Those who were not hands-on, clinical care givers came out of their offices to see what they could do. We pulled staff from the med-surg floor and they were ready to go," she said. Purchasing staff brought in supplies on carts which could be wheeled into rooms as needed. Plant operations personnel were on hand to oversee crowd control at the main entrance, Dingman said.
Interim CEO Bob Mason said he watched the process unfold as injured accident victims began arriving at the hospital. He said he was proud of how all the employees responded and jumped into action.
"I was in awe of the staff, but they told me this was the second such emergency they had handled this year," Mason said. Last March, the hospital staff was called into action when a multiple-vehicle accident occurred just east of Webster City.
"It was great to have our administrator there and to know that we had his support if something came up," Dingman said.
Mason said the hospital was fortunate to have Drs. Abhishake Kaapuraala, Nikki Ehn, Joseph Latella and Mark Andrew at the hospital to help treat the injured.
A young mother, who was injured in the accident, was transported to the hospital and later died of her injuries. Her story touched many of those at the hospital, Dingman said. The woman was traveling with her husband and year-old son, both of whom survived the accident. The young father spent the night at the hospital with his son.
"Word travels fast when there is a need. Everything they had with them was destroyed in the accident," Dingman said. Staff members went out on their breaks and purchased or donated items to replace the lost things, like a pack-and-play, a car seat, clothing, diapers and other needs. The Rev. Mike Kroona had been called in to offer bereavement care for the family, and later returned with diapers, clothing, winter coats and a few toys for the child. The workers also stepped in to offering nurturing and care to the young child who had lost his mother.
"They took turns holding him, rocking him and feeding him. It really went far beyond caring for his medical needs," Foster said.
The outpouring of donated items actually resulted in the hospital shipping several boxes to the family's home as there was too much for them to take with them on the road, Mason said.
Many people called the hospital, offering donations of money and supplies for the victims, according to Mason. Those donations were channeled through the hospital's foundation.
"People literally had just the clothing on their backs," said Foster. "Local merchants helped, restaurants made it a priority to get food here for workers and pharmacies helped refill prescriptions for those involved in the accident."
The hospital staff also made phone calls to family members of those injured and made motel reservations for those in need of a place to stay, Mason said. Plant services employees helped transport those people to local motels.
Moments of inspiration
In spite of the tragedy, staff members said they found many moments of inspiration. Maureen Carver, nurse manager, said a woman arrived in the middle of all the chaos very ready to deliver a baby. Plant operations staff members took the expectant mother by wheelchair to the OB department and nurses were quickly rerouted and reassigned to help with the imminent birth. Dr. Ehn stepped away from the ER to help deliver the baby.
And there were also non-human patients that the hospital watched over.
"We wound up with a few dogs," Dingman said. The hospital kept watch over Allie, a golden retriever, and kept her safe until her owner was released. "For another dog, the vet clinic brought over a kennel. His owner ended up being admitted, and the dog was transferred to the clinic for a brief stay."
EMS workers stepping in to help with the accident victims came from all over the area, Carver said.
"One of the ER nurses told me that Clarion, Kamrar, Williams, Blairsburg and Dows EMS volunteers helped at the scene and were at some point in our emergency department," Carver said.
"Throughout the whole intensity of the situation, everybody did their part," Dingman said. "We sometimes had to step back, shed a few tears and then pick up and go on."
"When something like this happens, we do what needs to be done to put the patient first and make sure everyone is taken care of and safe," Carver said.