The giant — a violent EF4 tornado that dropped from the sky on June 17, 2010 — destroyed his home and took away the irreplaceable — his wife of 18 years. But Ron, age 77, has survived and thrived.
Ron and Kathy Woodside lived in rural Albert Lea, Minn., and were attuned to the weather that day — which would set a new Minnesota record with 48 tornadoes. Ron recalls seeing an approaching rain cloud and hearing the rain begin. Within moments, the walls of their home were quivering. The home blew apart and the couple was at the mercy of the twister, with wind speeds around 175 mph.
"I remember bouncing along, like a giant was hammering me into the ground," Ron says.
The tornado demolished 10 buildings on the Woodside acreage. Mayo's advanced life support ground transport Gold Cross sent paramedics from nearby Austin, Minn., who began providing immediate care and started Ron's journey to recovery, which encompassed the Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, Mayo Clinic in Rochester and the miles in between.
Because of the weather, extra staff were already on duty in the Albert Lea Emergency Department, and Mayo Clinic Medical Transport had been alerted for likely transports to Saint Marys Hospital at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
Ron was the first tornado victim to arrive at Mayo Clinic Health System in Albert Lea, and his injuries were extensive.
In all, he had 27 broken bones. All 11 ribs on his left side were broken, most of them in more than one place. His lung was punctured. His right elbow was dislocated. Ankle ligaments were torn. Both shoulder blades and a cheekbone were broken.
Steven Wiese, M.D., Albert Lea Emergency Department physician, says the care team focused on stabilizing Ron's breathing, managing pain and establishing an access point to replenish lost blood.
Because the turbulent weather grounded the Mayo One helicopter, Ron was readied for the 60-mile drive to Mayo Clinic in Rochester with the flight team via Gold Cross ambulance.
In the care of Thomas Fryer, flight nurse, and Tricia Holden, flight paramedic, Ron received blood and plasma transfusions to maintain his blood pressure. Initially, Fryer recalls that Ron's vital signs were stable — but they didn't stay that way. As they traveled, he and Holden inserted a breathing tube to ease Ron's increasingly labored breathing.
"We had the resources to provide the care he needed," says Fryer of the hour long trip. But he adds, "We were worried."
As a Level I Trauma Center, Saint Marys Hospital was prepared for Ron with the highest level of emergency care. Board-certified trauma surgeons ascertained his chest wall trauma was most concerning.
On June 22, a surgical team led by Brian Kim, M.D., trauma, critical care and general surgery, stabilized many of the broken ribs with titanium plates and screws. The specialized surgery has been offered at Mayo Clinic for about two years.
"Without rib stabilization surgery, it's difficult for ribs with multiple breaks to fuse back together in proper alignment," says Dr. Kim. "The result would likely be a collapsed chest, chronic pain and lifelong breathing difficulties."
The surgery was successful and step by step Ron's other injuries were addressed. "The team approach to care worked well for Mr. Woodside," says Michael Torchia, M.D., Mayo orthopedic surgeon who repaired his torn ankle ligaments. "We had the specialists to cover all the bases for his care."
Ron's team also included a supportive family: His children and stepchildren and their spouses, 23 grandchildren and his brother, Jack. "I can't remember a time when there wasn't a family member at his side," says Dr. Torchia.
Five weeks after the tornado, Ron was discharged to a care center in Albert Lea to continue recovery. "I'm amazed I got out of there that fast," he says, giving some credit to his otherwise good health. "One doctor says I was like Benjamin Button," he chuckles, a reference to the literary character who progressively gets younger.
Bit by bit, Ron has pieced his life back together. He's now home, living in a new house built on the farmstead. He has been a regular spectator at his grandson's high school football and basketball games. His hunting rifles — found amidst the debris — have been restored and are ready for a new hunting season.
Ron's resilience and recovery have been remarkable to his care providers. "My overwhelming recollection of Mr. Woodside was his determination to get well and get back to hunting," says Dr. Torchia.
Avowing no bitterness, Ron says he's lucky to have survived. "I'm fortunate that I lived close to Mayo Clinic." For the luck of proximity, he can look to another devastating tornado. On August 21, 1883, a tornado struck Rochester, killing 37 people and injuring 200. That storm was the impetus for building Saint Marys Hospital and Mayo Clinic.
"My story is unusual," says Ron. "I'm grateful. Normally a person wouldn't live after being out in a tornado."