Tameka Myles was at work Friday evening when she got the call every mother dreads.
“You need to get here,” her neighbor in Rolling Fork said. “Jay is hurt pretty bad.”
Immediately, Myles got in her Nissan Maxima with a coworker and raced home, with one thing on her mind: her son.
Myles knew the weather was bad that night, but she assumed it would pass, as usual. She figured her 10-year-old son Gregory “Jay” Brady Jr. would be safe at her cousin’s house while she was at work at the Bumpers in Belzoni about an hour away.
Instead, her hometown was decimated.
An EF-4 tornado ripped through the Mississippi Delta on Friday night. Twenty-one people died, and dozens more were injured. Gov. Tate Reeves issued a state of emergency Saturday morning.
“My city – my city is gone,” Rolling Fork Mayor Eldridge Walker told CNN Saturday morning. “But we are resilient and we are going to come back strong.”
That night, Myles drove down pitch black roads and through downed power lines, one hand permanently pressed down on her car horn. She couldn’t fathom the devastation around her in the place she had grown up.
On the way there, Myles got a call from another neighbor who had picked up her son and taken him to the Rolling Fork Motel.
“It was the only place that she could get to, because they had everything blocked off,” Myles said.
Myles arrived at the motel to see her son sprawled out on a bed, bleeding from his side.
“I knew that I couldn’t break down,” she said. “I had to get my baby some help.”
The neighbor had already tried to get her son admitted at the local hospital, Sharkey Issaquena Community Hospital – the only hospital in the county. But it was full, and later lost power and had to transfer its patients to other hospitals.
The rural hospital has been struggling to stay afloat and was, as of September, seeking a buyer. It has continued to lose money over the years, even after pooling its resources with other small hospitals to buy supplies at a discounted rate.
EMTs said they’d return for Jay after taking someone already in the ambulance to Greenville, but the neighbor, a certified nurse assistant, knew the boy couldn’t wait.
When Myles heard her son couldn’t get emergency medical help, she was dumbfounded.
Malary White, chief communications officer at the Mississippi Emergency Management Agency, said emergency responders were en route to assist survivors within minutes after the storm and ambulances were dispatched from across the state to Sharkey County.
But she conceded that medical resources were stretched.
“Let’s keep in mind we were dealing with a mass casualty situation,” she said.
“Can they do that?” Myles kept asking. Myles couldn’t understand why her son couldn’t get help. But one thing was clear — she had to take matters into her own hands.
Myles and her coworker picked up Jay and loaded him into her car, before calling Jay’s father. They met up with him, transferred Jay to his car in the backseat because it was larger, and they sped the 41 miles toward Greenville, the closest place Myles knew Jay would be able to receive medical attention.
On the way there, Jay’s father kept calling Myles, telling her that Jay was complaining he couldn’t breathe. Myles started crying. Her coworker begged Myles to let him drive, but she refused.
“We’re not stopping,” she said. “We’ve got to get to Greenville.”
As they rolled into Greenville at 10 p.m., Myles blew past five red stop lights. Her coworker hung his head out of the window, yelling at bystanders to get out of the way. When Myles spotted the Delta Regional Medical Center, all she could think was, “Thank God we made it.”
Twenty minutes later, Myles discovered that Jay had four fractured ribs, and one of his lungs was punctured.
Someone with a punctured lung runs the risk of fatal complications like cardiac arrest, respiratory failure, shock and death if not treated quickly.
He’d need to be put on oxygen and transferred to a larger hospital — nurses at Delta Health told Myles that the hospital didn’t have the equipment to help Jay.
Saturday morning, Jay was taken by helicopter to Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis. Myles joined him at noon.
That night, Myles pulled the recliner close to Jay’s hospital bed. She put two of her braids in his hand before he fell asleep, and told him to yank if he needed help. Then she slept for the first time in more than 24 hours.
Jay has since been taken off oxygen and is breathing on his own. He’s still got tubes in his side, but he’s talking more and smiling, and Myles is relieved.
But she’s haunted by the possibilities of what might have happened if she didn’t have a car. She wonders how quickly they’d be able to get help if they didn’t live in rural Mississippi.
“My options were limited. I knew I had to do it myself,” Myles said. “I don’t really want to think about me not being able to help my son.”
She still has no idea how her son was injured. All Myles can find out about her cousin, who Jay was with during the tornado, is that he’s in critical condition at a hospital in Jackson.
It’s not clear when Jay will be discharged. Multiple times a day, he asks when they can go home. Myles hasn’t told him yet that their home doesn’t exist anymore. Their trailer and everything in it was destroyed.
And now, after her son couldn’t get the help he needed, Myles isn’t so sure that she wants to return home. Things are only set to get worse: One report puts a third of Mississippi’s rural hospitals at risk of closure, making it even harder to access health care.
“I think what I’m going to do is we’re going to move to a bigger area, where we’ve got support,” Myles said. “Where we can get help.”
Editor’s note: This story originally reported that officials estimated there were 25 fatalities as the result of the March 24 tornadoes. On March 27, the Mississippi Emergency Management Association downgraded the total number of deaths to 21.