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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Wichita nurse reunites Joplin tornado survivor, family

BY HURST LAVIANA
The Wichita Eagle

She was called Jane Doe when she was admitted to Via Christi Hospital on St. Francis on Monday morning.

Nurse Denell Smith knew only that the woman in her care was a victim of the Joplin tornado.

In Joplin, Debra Gifford knew that her grandmother had been in the intensive care unit at St. John's Regional Medical Center when the tornado hit on Sunday.

But when Gifford arrived at the hospital 30 minutes later, there was no sign of her grandmother.

For more than a day, Gifford searched in vain for her grandmother — at hospitals in four states and even at a morgue that held tornado victims.

Back in Wichita, Smith worked the phones Monday night trying to put a name to her unnamed patient.

It was late that night when the pieces began to fall together and the mystery that had baffled both women was solved.

When Gifford arrived in Wichita on Tuesday, she confirmed that Jane Doe was indeed her grandmother — Cora Ellsworth of Baxter Springs.

"She looked good. She looked very good," Gifford said.

Ellsworth, one of four victims of the Joplin tornado treated at St. Francis, remained in critical condition Wednesday.

Gifford, who lives in Riverton, about 10 miles west of Joplin, said she visited her grandmother at St. John's before the tornado hit. Ellsworth was being treated for Guillain-Barre syndrome, a nerve disorder.

After leaving the hospital as planned, Gifford rode out the tornado at her mother's house in nearby Galena. She headed straight back to the hospital when she heard it had taken a direct hit.

She said the third floor — the floor where her grandmother was staying — was the only one with its windows intact. But there was no sign of her grandmother.

Gifford and Smith still don't know how Ellsworth ended up outside the hospital after the storm.

"We don't know what happened," Smith said. "Somebody found her and got her on an air ambulance and flew her here."

Gifford said she began a frantic search that started with a list of area hospitals that might be treating tornado victims.

"It was a page and a half long in tiny print," she said. "I called a million hospitals."

She went to the morgue with pictures of her grandmother and was told Ellsworth wasn't there.

Back in Wichita, Smith finished her shift not knowing much about Jane Doe. She was on IVs but was not wearing a hospital wristband that could identify her.

After Smith got home that night, she began reading about the tornado and St. John's. She said she found a website for people missing from the tornado, but there were no leads there.

"I didn't want to leave her as a Jane Doe," she said.

She said she finally found the number of a hotline used by nurses at St. John's. She left a message with an answering service in St. Louis.

She described her patient — a woman in her 70s with long, braided gray hair and some surgical scars.

About 30 minutes later, she said, she got a call from a nurse back in Joplin who said she was 99 percent sure that Smith's patient was Cora Ellsworth.

Gifford drove to Wichita on Tuesday and confirmed the identification.

Smith, a nurse for 19 years, said she's relieved that she's no longer treating a patient known only as Jane Doe.

"I'm just so grateful that her granddaughter is here and that they're reunited," she said.

Gifford said she gives all the credit for the reunion to Smith.

"Make sure that you put in there that she's my hero," she said.

Reach Hurst Laviana at 316-268-6499 or hlaviana@wichitaeagle.com.

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