Rising from the Rubble: A Small-Town Doc Rebuilds

Stanley Keith Morrow, D.O. (COM ’85) had quite a year in 2011. Both of the practices he built from the ground up were destroyed in a single day—part of the April outbreak of 359 tornadoes that swept across 21 states in the worst disaster in the USA since hurricane Katrina—and he was named the nation’s “Country Doctor of the Year.”

As one newscast put it, the small communities where Dr. Morrow practiced were “wiped from the map” by a category EF5 tornadoes, the strongest and most destructive tornadoes known. While it wasn’t entirely true that the towns vanished (FIMA says they were about 75% destroyed), everyone agrees that the level of devastation was incomprehensible. Over 50 people died in the combined communities of Hackleburg (pop. 1527) and Phil Campbell (pop. 1091), both located in northwest Alabama where he practiced. Many of them had been his patients. Little remained standing; nothing was undamaged. And these weren’t towns where the people had all that much to begin with.

It Started with Caring

For a quarter of a century before the storms, Dr. Morrow served his rural Alabama communities with a level of dedication that is only possible if you really love what you are doing. He speaks openly about how he genuinely loves the people he cares for and he is loved and trusted in return. Of course, the challenge of having a personal bond with his patients is that when someone dies he knows what they meant to their family, to their community. But there is an upside to his rural practice as well. His connection with his patients is so close that Dr. Morrow admits that, “Sometimes people say, ‘You know, you don’t feel like no doctor, you feel like you’re my family,’ and I think that kind of bond is different than most urban doctors have.” At this point in his career, Dr. Morrow, now in his mid-fifties, has cared for several generations in some families.

Dr. Morrow grew up on a small family farm in Red Bay, Alabama, 25 miles from where he now practices. As a small-town boy he was an unlikely candidate for medical school since he lacked exposure to anyone with a medical background. But he did well in chemistry and biology and a little research into how to use those interests and meeting some people from Kansas City led to attending COM. “The stuff that you remember from school are the study groups and the friends you make, and what seem like really hard times,” he recalls. “But the hard times are when you come out and you have to be responsible for a practice,” he laughs. “For me it’s like having a child. It’s your own baby.”

Soon after graduating from medical school in 1985, Dr. Morrow returned to his roots to start to practice in Phil Campbell. In 1987 he started a second clinic in Hackleburg, a few miles southwest. He is now assisted by a devoted staff including Jean Hester and Claudette Davis, two nurse practitioners and is an active member of the medical staff at Russellville Hospital in a nearby town and where he served the hospital as chief of staff and vice chief of staff. Despite days that begin with hospital rounds at 6:30 am and office hours that run until 6:30 pm while seeing fifty patients a day, Dr. Morrow has no regrets about the choices he’s made. Married to Janet Morrow with grown children and grandkids, he has rarely taken more than a long-weekend off for vacation (he took a week off once), although he lives on a lake, enjoys boating and is a big Alabama fan.

The Day the World Turned Upside Down

Patti Baker, Dr. Morrow’s office manager of 13 years recalls that the weather had been stormy in the morning of April 27th and just seemed to be getting worse. “I called Dr. Morrow in Hackleburg and said, ‘It’s getting real bad up here,’ because it had hailed so bad. ‘We may need to go home,’ he told me. ‘Let’s just go home.’ So as soon as we got through the patients that were already in the office and called the others to reschedule, we left. That was about eleven-thirty.”

That was the last time Patti would see the office in Phil Campbell intact. Later that afternoon the building was entirely destroyed along with most of the town. Just a few minutes earlier the town of Hackleburg had also been demolished and Dr. Morrow’ clinic there had been torn to bits as well.

When Patti returned that same day after the storm to retrieve important papers, nothing was recognizable. “I tried to get there with my husband and daughter but we couldn’t get into town, because of downed power lines and trees were blocking the road. They finally got us routed around, but we had to park and walk to the clinic. You couldn’t even tell where you were at. That was something that I’ll never forget. Every car we walked by had no windows in it. All the windows exploded out of the cars. We found where the clinic had been because we saw red. We’d had red walls in our lobby, and we recognized the place by the one red wall that was still standing”

Seeing the devastation left by a category EF5 tornado is indeed unforgettable. Nearly a mile across and with wind speeds of over 230 mph, it didn’t just blow branches off the trees, it stripped the bark off the trunks leaving twisted, limbless stumps in the ground, frayed ends pointing skyward. It would be difficult to overstate the ruin inflicted on property as nearly every building was reduced to granular bits. As Wikipedia says, “An EF5 tornado pulls well-built homes off their foundations and into the air before shredding them, flinging the wreckage for miles and sweeping the foundation clean.”

For all the physical damage, the real tragedy of an EF5 tornado is the loss of life. Unless one is in a reinforced shelter, a human cannot normally survive a direct hit. This was just as true for the citizens of Phil Campbell and Hackleburg where Cathy Purser and her husband lost the house they had lived in for 34 years, but survived by huddling in their basement with ten other people. “We were just lucky,” said Cathy when interviewed by National Public Radio. “All of my neighbors is gone — they all died around me, every one of them. It’s two people up there on the hill, the lady right there, the man and woman behind me, the lady behind them, a lady on down the road.”

“When you see this, it makes you appreciate life as a whole more,” observes Dr. Morrow about the moment when he stood in the rubble of his own clinic. “You know, all of us in the healthcare industry understand how fragile life is. This demonstrated the fragility of life in a whole other sense. When you understand that, and you look at the rubble around you, you see what life actually means to you. You ask, ‘What do I want to do with the rest of my life?’”

The answer for Dr. Morrow was a resolve to use what remains of his career to serve his patients and to rebuild where his patients needed him. There was no question of quitting or moving his offices to Russellville, about 20 miles away, where space was readily available. So, by 8:30 the next morning his staff was already going through the rubble finding what equipment and medical records they could—basically nothing could be salvaged—and he was making hospital rounds and strategizing with his with wife about how to get up and running again. “That was all he kept saying,” Patti recalls. “‘We got to get back. Our patients need us,’ he said—because of all they’d just been through. Most everybody here had just lost a family member.”


Climbing Out of the Rubble

Monday morning, after an enormous team effort over the previous days, both offices were reopened, albeit in Army Reserve tents in one location and in the conference room of the local Rescue Squad’s building right next to the temporary morgue in the parking lot at the other. The logistics had to be coordinated by text message since there was no phone service nor electricity and Dr. Morrow moved back and forth from one town to the other to see patients, even in their cars if mobility was an issue.

The rescue squad that pulled people from the rubble practiced medical triage, sending the most critically injured to hospitals, but there were lots of injuries to treat locally. Counselors were brought in to help people cope with the psychological trauma people were suffering. Soon the tents were replaced by a trailer donated by a beverage company and modified with makeshift examining rooms. “At least we had basic sanitation then,” Dr. Morrow said appreciatively.

Today a few new homes have replaced the rubble in Hackleburg and there will be home starts in Phil Campbell as the weather improves. Kids are attending school in trailers with the promise of a new school being built. The congregation whose church was destroyed no longer has to meet in a tent. They are rebuilding one of the damaged structures. Dr. Morrow and his staff were able to return to their newly constructed medical offices: in August for Phil Campbell and the beginning of February for Hackleburg. Life is slowly improving.

In a remarkable display of compassion and generosity of spirit, and to honor the losses that his own communities experienced, Dr. Morrow and his wive have applied to form a non-profit organization they are officially calling Primary Care Healthfirst or PCH. But for Dr. Morrow, the acronym will always stand for ‘Phil Campbell and Hackleburg’ and they are going to try to help other small towns when disaster strikes. How? By sending a mobile medical clinic. “We would practice in the back end of a tractor trailer. Our clinic was in an eighteen-wheeler trailer and it worked. It wasn’t lavish and it wasn’t great, but it worked.”

In December, Staff Care, an organization that provides temporary medical staffing, named Dr. Morrow the “Country Doctor of the Year’ as the physician who best exemplifies the spirit, skill, and dedication of America’s rural medical practitioners. Staff Care representatives said Dr. Morrow will be able to enjoy two weeks of time off while Staff Care provides a temporary physician to fill in for him at no charge. Dr. Morrow says that maybe he’ll take his wife to Italy, a place she’s always want to visit, but probably only for a week. “It’s hard to turn over your patients to somebody else.”