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Twenty-five Years
Hospital workers recall caring for patients in midst of twisters

By Sarah Schulz

Pat Bilslend doesn't like hospitals -- and she has two more reasons than the average person.
In 1976, she had to go into the basement of Lutheran Memorial Hospital when sirens alerted Grand Islanders to an approaching tornado.

Four years later, she found herself huddled in a St. Francis Medical Center commons area with other patients, praying for safety.

"I was just petrified," she said.

Bilslend was at St. Francis to be prepped for knee surgery scheduled for June 4, 1980. Her husband, Harold, left for supper just before the storms struck. His destination? Long John Silver's on South Locust.

Not long after he left, sirens sounded, and Bilslend and other patients from the orthopedic unit were shuttled to a commons area. She sat in a chair and worried about Harold as she watched a tornado out the window at the end of the hall.

"It was scary," she said.

The nurses were very efficient and did what they could to calm themselves and others, she said.

Most of the patients handled the situation well. They held pillows and blankets to cover themselves if needed.

And they waited.

Some of the ladies cried. Bilslend kept her emotions in check until returning to the privacy of her room.

Several hours passed before she found out that her husband had decided to go home to Wood River for supper. One of the tornadoes had gone down South Locust and damaged the Long John Silver's. She got the news from her son, who walked to St. Francis from his home on Stolley Park Road to talk to his mother.

In addition to relaying the news about his father, he told her of a horse he saw standing in the middle of the road near his house. The animal was still there the next morning when Bilslend's husband came to get her from the hospital.

She ended up having surgery the next week when full power was restored to the hospital.

St. Francis' building on Faidley Avenue was new in those days, but the water from heavy rains ran down the walls and alarms around the building buzzed for most of the night, which was irritating, Bilslend said.

The hospital had to go to auxiliary power, which wasn't strong enough to maintain the air conditioners. Medical technologist Ann Thorndike said hospital employees put fans over pans of ice to try to keep patients cool.

She had been in the blood bank matching blood for surgeries scheduled for June 4 and wasn't aware of the storms until the lights dimmed. The interior room didn't have windows, and when she opened a door to look outside, rain pelted her face.

Once they realized how widespread the damage was, hospital workers went into action. They prepared for the worst, especially after hearing that a hotel on South Locust had been hit. They waited in the ambulance bay for patients.

But there weren't as many injuries as they expected. A lot of the patients were elderly people who had been home alone and were in shock, she said.

In the days that followed, Thorndike said, they gave out lots of Gatorade to fight dehydration and tetanus shots to protect people who had stepped on debris.

The exact number of people injured by the storm is unclear. People had the option of going to St. Francis or Lutheran Memorial for emergency treatment. The veterans hospital was a full-service location as well.

Thorndike said the veterans hospital took a direct hit, but because someone there had mistaken a tornado watch for a tornado warning, the patients had been moved to safety.

"I remember being dirty and hot," she said of the days after June 3. "I wore a scrub dress and sandals, which wasn't usually allowed. Everyone was running around in green scrubs, helicopters were flying overhead, and everything was flattened. The National Guard was here. It reminded me of the show 'M.A.S.H.' It was surreal."