Photo credit: Courtesy photo
It was a dark day when the central Massachusetts town of Brimfield was struck by a tornado on June 1, 2011, but then the littlest patient of all brought some much needed light.
The Initial Response
Paramedic Jonathan Hall, a volunteer with the Brimfield Ambulance Service, weathered the tornado at home with his wife Amy Waterman, a state trooper. “We saw it coming on TV and it came right across our property,” he says. Though some neighbors’ homes were destroyed, his remained livable. He made his way out through the downed trees in his wrecked yard and commandeered a ride to the fire station.
He and an EMT were the first responders to make it in, and they took an ambulance to a severely damaged campground with mobile homes and trailers. Though it was only two miles away, it took them 40 minutes to get there through the disaster.
They arrived to find one person killed and about 12 injured, three to four of them critically. The fatality was a woman who had been crushed by a refrigerator in her trailer. The injuries included major fractures and a flailed chest.
“I was the only paramedic so it was a little overwhelming,” Hall says. He and his EMT partner were on their own for the first hour, as outside responders took time to get through the blocked roads.
The two performed triage and Hall started lines and gave medications, writing peoples’ meds and doses on their legs. When additional help came, he sent some of the critical patients out on BLS ambulances because that was all they had.
“We muddled through it,” Hall says, and suffered the additional challenge of a second tornado. They had to move everyone into the basement of a damaged building and then back out again.
Hall was exhausted that night but returned to the fire station the next morning, where something special happened in the midst of all the chaos.
A tree worker brought in a 6-ounce kitten, less than a week old, that he had found blown into a tree. The many responders passing through were smitten and took turns holding the little creature, soon dubbed Toto after the dog from The Wizard of Oz. The survival of something so small served as a sign of hope.
”We had all these big, grown guys holding this little tiny kitten,” Hall says. “It just brought some humanity to what was a pretty miserable day.”
Hall tried to feed the kitten milk but it clearly needed veterinary care. He kept Toto alive until he was able to turn the kitten over to the Animal Rescue League of Boston, which was on hand to help with other animals impacted by the storm.
“That was the last I thought we’d see of him,” Hall says.
However, Hall and his wife saw Toto on the news several times and the experience stayed with him, having brought some perspective to the ongoing response efforts. Hall saw his EMS and personal worlds collide as he served as a responder during the day, visiting damaged homes and assessing the needs of residents, and receiving those visits himself in the evening.
“In EMS we’re always thinking about numbers, and we tend to forget that behind the numbers there’s a human being,” Hall says. “We get caught up in the technical stuff but EMS is about people.”
Bringing Toto Home
As a surprise, Hall’s wife arranged to adopt the cat following his recovery, and brought him home six weeks later as a present for their 10th anniversary.
“I didn’t know anything about it. It was pretty cool,” Hall says.
When he got the idea to write a children’s book, he thought it would just be a small, silly project. “I’m a paramedic, not an author,” he says.
He teamed up with Vermont artist Carol Rusicka to write an illustrated book titled, Toto The Tornado Kitten, which follows the tiny kitten's journey from the forest until he finds his new adopted home.
“We sold out of them like crazy,” Hall says.
He has since written a second book titled, Oh Toto! Where did you go?
After selling 10,000 books the project has netted $45,000 for animal services. One hundred percent of the proceeds will go to the Animal Rescue League of Boston and other local shelters.
“Sometimes these opportunities come along once in a lifetime to make a difference in your community,” Hall says.
“The best part is, I get to drive around with my cat,” he adds. Though he works multiple jobs as a paramedic and volunteers, he uses his days off to drive around New England with Toto, at his own expense, visiting schools, libraries, nursing homes and more. Toto wears a sparkly red collar reminiscent of Dorothy’s ruby red slippers, and nuzzles audience members while Jonathan tells the story of the tiny kitten and his paramedic pal.
Their strangest experience so far was delivering a keynote speech at a weather forecasters’ conference. Though Hall says he felt completely out of place, he could see the connection for that audience being the same as it is for those in EMS.
“It adds a human dimension to what is very scientific, and reminds you why you’re doing it.”