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A tornado bearing down, a mom in labor: Four nurses face a crisis

By Brian Todd and Dugald McConnell, CNN
May 24, 2013 -- Updated 1035 GMT (1835 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Shayla Taylor was already in labor when the Moore tornado roared toward her hospital
  • It was too late to move her; her four nurses sprang into action to protect her
  • As her labor intensified, "I knew we were getting hit directly"

(CNN) -- Tears flowed and hugs were traded on Thursday in an Oklahoma maternity ward as four nurses saw for the first time the baby whose birth they helped safeguard during a direct hit by Monday's tornado.

"Look how handsome your boy is," said one of them, when she saw the 4-day-old boy.

But baby Braeden's birth came only after a very close brush with the twister.

His mother, Shayla Taylor, was already in labor when the tornado turned toward Moore, Oklahoma. She was so far along -- dilated and going through contractions -- that in spite of the approaching storm, there was no way to evacuate her.

"She couldn't move," said Alyson Heeke, nurse supervisor at Moore Medical Center. "She'd had an epidural anesthesia, which meant that it numbed her enough that she couldn't walk."

This is what was left of the OR where Shayla Taylor was giving birth on Monday when the tornado hit.
This is what was left of the OR where Shayla Taylor was giving birth on Monday when the tornado hit.

As the tornado came closer, the medical staff moved Taylor into a hallway, then to a windowless operating room that offered more protection.

"Her baby was not doing the best," said charge nurse Cindy Popejoy, "so I really needed a way to monitor her baby to see how the baby was tolerating the labor process -- especially since she was so far dilated. So the only place to do that would be the OR."

With the twister bearing down on them, the four nurses -- Popejoy, Heeke, Barbara Brand and Bonny Stephens -- covered their patient with blankets, pillows and even their own bodies.

"We actually were on the floor," said Heeke. "Bonny the scrub-tech was kind of leaned over her a little more. We had blankets and pillows all around her. We were holding onto each other -- and the bed."

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Within minutes, the hospital was hit with massive force. Taylor said she did not know whether she and the baby would survive, but she kept praying.

"I knew we were getting hit directly," she said. "I felt the floor start shaking. It feels like an earthquake."

The outside wall of the operating room was ripped off, but everyone in the room survived. Afterward, debris was lying everywhere, including heavy equipment and lighting fixtures strewn across the floor. There was wreckage in every direction, there was a gaping hole where the wall once stood, and the baby-warmer was silhouetted against the open sky.

"I opened my eyes, I could see I-35," said Taylor. "And I could see the movie theater."

But Shayla's husband Jerome -- who had taken cover downstairs with their 4- year-old son Shaeden -- did not know whether she had survived and did not know how to find her.

"They were saying 'No, everyone's out of the building,' " he said. "And I was like 'No, my wife - my wife is upstairs."

He soon found her, and she was transported on a flat board down a stairwell and through the debris. Shayla Taylor was closer than ever to giving birth.

She was taken to the nearby hospital in Norman and gave birth within hours. Braeden weighed in at 8 pounds, 3 ounces.

"He probably will sleep through anything now," Heeke said with a smile.

Shayla Taylor is herself studying to become a nurse. Seeing these nurses put a patient's welfare ahead of their own, she said, has made her more committed than ever to becoming a caregiver.

"Those nurses are amazing," she said.

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