Special Reports

Young survivors of Joplin tornado face a long journey

A toy scattered amid the debris (photographed on May 28) provided a reminder that the Joplin, Mo., tornado didn't spare the children.
A toy scattered amid the debris (photographed on May 28) provided a reminder that the Joplin, Mo., tornado didn't spare the children. SHANE KEYSER | THE KANSAS CITY STAR

In a pre-operation room at Children’s Mercy Hospital, teenager Lage Grigsby and his mom are fussing about socks.

The socks are hospital-issued. Gray, with bumpy rubber on the bottom so patients don’t slip on the floor.

Lage doesn’t want to wear them, or at least he’s acting like he doesn’t. Jessica Grigsby bends down to put them on. Lage resists. They laugh. And the game goes on for a few moments until the boy gives in.

Outside, in a bright hallway, a gurney waits to take him into surgery.

For the next few hours a surgical team will piece together the teen’s skull, which fractured in two places when an EF-5 tornado cut through Joplin on May 22. Since that night, Lage, 14, has carried two sections of skull in his abdomen, stashed there by a Joplin neurosurgeon to keep the bone alive. The doctor also removed a 4-inch sliver of the teen’s damaged brain.

On this day, Tuesday, the surgery is to reattach those pieces to provide permanent protection for Lage’s brain, which swelled after the injury and is now healing. For Lage’s parents, the surgery is another step in their journey to make the boy who always loved to play soccer and ride horses healthy again.

Many children injured in the storm are taking a similar path.

Although authorities don’t know exactly how many of the more than 900 people injured were children, first responders and doctors and nurses can still see their faces, recall their stories.

A little boy with a massive neck laceration that exposed his spine. Kids with broken bones and head injuries. A 3-year-old boy whose foot was nearly sliced in two.

The injured include Lage’s 10-year-old cousin, Mason Lillard, who was inside their grandpa’s pickup at the Home Depot with Lage and their grandma when the tornado hit. A metal bar pierced Mason’s torso, impaling her shoulder and back.

As Mason continues to recover from her injuries, Lage struggles to recover from his.

Awakening after a week in a medically induced coma, Lage couldn’t immediately walk or talk. Doctors estimated he had the mentality of an 8-year-old.

Since then he’s gradually progressed, advancing through a series of “firsts” — words and feats that serve as milestones on the way back from any severe brain injury.

Each morning, Jessica wakes up and wonders: What new word will Lage, her second oldest of five children, say today? What progress will he make?

“There’s the understanding as parents, you can’t give up,” says Lage’s father, James, a contractor with Wal-Mart in Bentonville, Ark. “He’s depending on us and you have to be there, be strong for him and the rest of the kids.”

Both parents say they’re prepared for the long struggle ahead.

On this day at Children’s Mercy, however, the mood in the pre-op room is relaxed and light, or as light as it can be considering Lage’s mom and dad are operating on roughly three hours’ sleep after an early morning drive from their home in Neosho, Mo. By the time Lage has exchanged his Simpsons pajama bottoms for a hospital gown, all seem a little sleepy.

Still, the joking continues as the family members, escorted by a nurse, leave the room and head down the hallway.

Outside the operating room, James helps heft his son onto the gurney. But Lage isn’t done jesting. He grabs the railing with his strong arm to keep from lying back. The teen keeps joking, but then becomes agitated.

“Lage. Lage, let go,” his mom compels.

It becomes clear her son doesn’t want to leave. As his parents lean down to kiss him goodbye, Lage sobs into his mother’s cheek.

“I hate for him to have to go through all of this,” Jessica says as her son is rolled away. “But I want him to have a normal life someday.”

Sharon Lillard didn’t notice anything odd about the sky when her husband pulled their 1992 Ford F350 into the parking lot of Home Depot late in the afternoon of May 22.

It was just a little cloudy, not even raining.

She and her husband, Rodney, had spent the day fishing with grandchildren Lage and Mason. They were going to drop him home, but Rodney needed to make a quick trip into the store to pick up wiring for a new garage.

Lillard would later think she and the grandkids might have gone inside, but she had spilled some water on her pants and that had pretty much made up her mind for her. She would just wait in the truck.

The kids waited with her. Eventually the three noticed the wind kicking up out of nowhere, and the sky turning a nasty gray.

At some point her phone rang and she could hear daughter Jessica’s worried voice on the other end, telling her a serious storm was headed their way.

Better get in the store, Jessica said.

Lillard pushed on the truck door — the wind seemed to have welded it shut. She realized that whatever was happening was happening too fast to do much about it. She turned to her grandchildren and the three joined hands in prayer.

Watch over us

, she asked.

Lillard never felt her grandson’s hand slip from hers. She doesn’t remember the wind picking up the roughly 2½-ton truck. Neither do her grandkids. “God’s blocking that memory for us,” she would later say.

But she does remember the truck slamming to the ground, landing amid the mounds of broken shelving and metal and concrete that only a few moments before had been the Home Depot.

She knew she was still in the vehicle, but she wasn’t sure about her grandkids. She couldn’t see much. She could feel debris pelting her back.

“Mason?” she called out. Eventually, the girl answered.


Soon she could make out sounds from the boy, too.

Again, she said a prayer.

Find somebody to come and help us fast. God, please send somebody quick.

As the wind died, Rodney Lillard climbed from the store’s rubble to look for his family. Right before the tornado hit, employees rushed customers back to the training room. Lillard sought refuge under a table, his mind fixed on his family outside.

Once he got free, he rushed to the parking lot but couldn’t find the truck. “Maybe she left,” an employee said.

Sure that his wife wouldn’t have driven away, Lillard began searching through the debris. He quickly saw the telltale blue-and-white license plate “#1 Grandpa.” A gift from his grandkids.

There on the ground, just outside the driver’s side of his pickup, was Lage. He lay sprawled on his side, groaning. Rodney could see the white of his grandson’s cracked skull, the gray that he knew was his brain.

Lay still

, he told Lage.

Don’t move


Emergency crews soon appeared, navigating the rubble with volunteers and bloodied survivors. An emergency medical tech checked Lage’s pupils and gave Lillard some bad news. The boy’s left eye was dilated, indicating that his brain was swelling.

“I’m sorry,” Lillard remembers the man telling him as he stepped out of the ambulance. “He’s not going to make it.”

While a firefighter stayed with Lage, Lillard went to help his granddaughter, who was still trapped in his truck. He didn’t know Lage would be whisked to Freeman Health System, outside of the devastation.

The hospital soon filled with gravely injured storm victims and frantic relatives searching for loved ones. The hospital set up a triage system.

The moment neurosurgeon Arthur Daus saw Lage, he knew that the teen was one of the most urgent cases.

His fractured skull was exposed, and the surgeon could see brain matter pushing through the cracks. Some of his brain tissue had been contaminated by bits of gravel, straw and wood.

“He was in the process of dying,” Daus would later say.

When Jessica Grigsby heard from a neighbor that the Home Depot had taken a direct hit, she tried to reach her mom again by cellphone. She couldn’t get through.

James rushed home from his job in Bentonville, cutting the usually hourlong trip nearly in half. Together, they drove to find their son.

Arriving at Freeman, the parents would wait for hours not knowing how badly their son was hurt — only that he needed surgery. Mason, too, needed surgery to remove the bar from her body.

As they waited for news on the kids’ conditions, their three youngest children fell asleep on the hospital floor while the oldest, 16, went to help the medical staff as they triaged more patients and calmed relatives.

Inside the operating room, Daus excised a small portion of Lage’s brain and then lifted off a part of the skull to relieve the pressure and give the brain room to expand.

He stored the skull bone just inside Lage’s abdominal wall, underneath the skin layer, in a procedure he says trauma surgeons have been using for at least a decade. The bone is safe and protected there.

“It’s part of his body,” Daus says. “His body’s immune system recognizes it as his own and won’t attack it.”

After nearly four hours in the operating room, Daus could finally deliver an update to Lage’s parents. The surgery had gone well, but “he’s not out of the woods yet.”

Like Joplin itself, the children injured in the storm are working to recover. Their parents shuttle them to hospitals and clinics, hoping to help them get back to normal.

Assistance with transportation and other costs comes from local charities and people who understand what these parents are facing.

Shortly after the tornado, Cris and John Henkle started raising money for The Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals, knowing that it would be helping many families. The network helped them when their son nearly drowned four years ago.

After honoring the people who died as a result of the tornado — the total rose to 159 on Friday, including at least 13 younger than 18 — the Henkles wanted to focus on the survivors, especially the children.

“It’s hard when you live here to just dwell on the past,” says Cris Henkle. “At this point we are wanting to move on.”

She and her husband, who own Henkle’s Ace Hardware in Webb City, Mo., have worked with other businesses to raise thousands of dollars for the miracle network. That effort continues.

Money goes to help families like the Grigsbys and the Vinsons.

Donnie Dwayne Vinson, 3, still talks about the tornado, his dad says.

“He’ll tell anybody, ‘We was in a tornado and it tore up my foot, it ripped my foot in half,’ ” says Dwayne Vinson, who rode out the storm in a bathtub with his wife and son.

The boy stayed in the hospital three weeks. Doctors treated a cut on his foot that went from the top of his right big toe to the middle of his foot.

When he was ready to go home, he needed a wheelchair. Without insurance, the Vinsons couldn’t afford the hundreds of dollars one would cost.

That’s when Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals stepped in.

“We had it for him the second he was released from the hospital,” says Kathy Watson, supervisor with Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals for Freeman Health System.

In the days since the storm, the network has helped many families with medical equipment and money for gas or lodging while their children are hospitalized.

Donnie, who still needs plastic surgery on his foot, races around in his wheelchair. He enjoys making fast turns in circles, his dad says.

“If it weren’t for them, I’d be carrying him around,” says Dwayne Vinson, whose family is in another rental after their home was destroyed in the storm.

As Lage Grigsby begins extensive therapy and continues seeing doctors for checkups, the network will continue to help his family with money for gas and lodging.

Lage pumps his left hand to maneuver his wheelchair around his fifth-floor room at Children’s Mercy Hospital. He smiles, welcoming a stranger.

“Where are you going tomorrow?” Jessica asks her son on this day late last month.

His smile widens. “Going home,” he says, the words labored and slow.

Initially, doctors didn’t know how far Lage would come. In the first month, he didn’t walk and said few words.

Jessica remembers the first time doctors had to sit him up in bed. Her heart sank. She thinks that’s when reality truly hit.

“My son couldn’t prop himself up,” she says now, shaking her head.

Then things started clicking. He said a word. Moved his legs. Took a step.

It was as if he were a baby again, his parents experiencing so many firsts.

He relearned to use a pencil. Feed himself. Even talk. He’s progressed from simple words and recitation two or three weeks ago to two- and three-word sentences.

The left portion of Lage’s brain, the side that was injured, controls his speech and mobility on his right side, so those things will take time. How much time, doctors don’t know.

“We’ve been given a miracle,” says James Grigsby, who with Jessica is grateful for the care Daus and physicians and nurses at Children’s Mercy gave their son.

The next 1½ years will be vital in Lage’s learning process, doctors say. But, in the past few weeks, he’s exceeded expectations.

“The fact that he’s made this much gain later on is encouraging and a little bit more exceptional,” says Thaddeus Wilson, a rehabilitation physician who treated Lage at Children’s Mercy.

For those coming back from a severe injury, youth has its benefits, Wilson says.

“They’re curious, they’re energetic,” he says. “Their brain is more plastic, it’s not as solidified. They have enthusiasm.”

And they have the intense love of family and other adults.

During Lage’s five weeks at Children’s Mercy, Jessica Grigsby was there every day, going to therapy sessions and talking to doctors and nurses. Every weekend, from Friday to Monday morning, James came, too.

Lage’s siblings and grandparents also visited to support him.

“Every time he does a little more we brag him on, ‘Keep it up. Keep it going,’ ” Sharon Lillard says.

And they just watch him smile. Especially when he started lifting his right arm. The higher it goes, the prouder he is.

“To see the family handle this as well as they have, to continue to encourage him,” Wilson says. “It’s like a miracle every day to see how people are able to move forward.”

Twenty-four hours after Lage’s second surgery, the teen was ready to go home again. Surgeons were able to piece the skull back together — the surgery a success.

Though the bone didn’t fit together perfectly, doctors told Lage’s parents that scar tissue should fill in the gaps that remain.

In a few weeks, Lage will start extensive outpatient therapy. He’ll work with speech therapists almost daily and with others on his physical and cognitive skills. After three months, his parents and physicians will decide whether he’s ready to go back to school.

Within hours of being home Wednesday, Lage had walked outside to pet the dog.

“My optimal goal is to see him on the soccer field again,” his mother said.

Until then, it’s just one small, welcome goal at a time.

And each day, the mom will awake and wonder about her teenage boy:

What new word will he say today? What more will he accomplish?

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