Twist of Fate: Former KU swimmer finds herself in the middle of the Joplin tornado disaster

June 22, 2011


Just months removed from her collegiate career, former Kansas swimmer Brittany Potter found herself diving toward a new challenge; her most demanding stretch of pharmacy school. After her second year at KU’s School of Pharmacy, Potter —like every student— must complete a month-long internship during the summer in Kansas or the surrounding area.

Because of this, the Bentonville, Ark., native was assigned to work at the McCune-Brooks Hospital in Carthage, Mo. Potter was actually placed to live in the dorms of Missouri Southern State University in Joplin as part of her training and make the short 15 mile commute to Carthage.

Sunday, May 22at 5 p.m. was supposed to be check-in time at the dorms for Potter, who would begin work the next day, but because of a delay in receiving her Missouri internship license, her rotation was postponed for a week. That day at approximately 5:40 p.m. is when an F-5 tornado ripped through the very town that Potter was supposed to call home for the summer, killing 154 people.

“My sister (Alyssa Potter) and I were actually on our way from Bentonville to Lawrence for a week, and were just about 15 miles from Joplin when we heard about the tornado warning on the radio, so we turned around and headed back home,” Potter explained.

If everything had gone according to plan, Potter would have been in Joplin when the killer tornado struck, but instead was lucky enough that she could simply drive away to escape it.

“It was kind of a shocker,” she said. “It hit me really hard and made me realize that you can’t take life for granted. Days after the disaster I still could not believe it.”

Before the tornado changed everything, Potter had been expecting to work at the 25-bed hospital in Carthage, but once she arrived it had doubled in size into a 52-bed facility to accommodate all those injured in the disaster.

“Everyone came into the hospital and had all these crazy stories,” Potter remembered. “One patient said that she went into her bathroom to seek shelter and got knocked out only to find herself trapped underneath debris four blocks away from her home.”

In addition to working at the hospital caring for some of the tornado victims, Potter has driven down to Joplin to donate bags of clothes. “Every time I drive through there (Joplin), I cannot even talk, because all you can do is look around at all the damage,” she said.

Some of Potter’s co-workers who grew up in Joplin tell her when they go back to volunteer, they do not even know where they are and get lost because it all looks so different.

Potter’s former assistant coach at KU, Jen Fox, thinks her experiences in the pool helped prepare her for what she is dealing with now in her rotation.

“I think it has definitely prepared her,” Fox said. “It is a stressful situation, but I think as an athlete you are under a lot of stress, so you learn how to perform in those situations.”

Potter agrees that the pressure of being a college student-athlete has prepared her to perform even in difficult situations. “I think one thing that has helped me as a former athlete is from an aspect of team work and camaraderie,” Potter said. “You really have to put others before you and work together for a common goal. Some people were working there for 24-hours straight but had to keep going because they needed to be there.”

Compared to the swim season, Potter’s internship is much shorter, but equally as grueling. After finishing with her responsibilities in Carthage later this month, Potter will return to Lawrence to work at a pharmacy in town. While she may be hundreds of miles away from the disaster, her heart will be much closer.

“It has been an experience that I hope never to see again but one that I will never forget,” she reflected. “I have learned that there are still great people out there and to live each day to the fullest because you cannot take life for granted.”

Her time in Joplin and the surrounding areas has also made Potter look forward to her future career. “You do not always see the direct impact of how pharmacists help people,” Potter said. “This experience has helped me realize that we are a critical part of the relief efforts and it has made me proud to be in pharmacy school.”

Once her internship is officially over, Potter plans to return to Joplin once again to volunteer in the disaster zone, instead of at the hospital.