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Indiana State Fair stage collapse survivor changes career to Methodist trauma chaplain

“It changed me”
Thomas McDorr
Posted at 5:15 PM, Aug 16, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-19 17:29:13-04

INDIANAPOLIS – August 13, 2011, is a night Thomas McDorr said he still thinks about every day.

That's because the night of the stage collapse at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 was the driving force behind his decision to become a trauma chaplain at IU Methodist Hospital.

McDorr said it was all a part of God’s plan.

"You really aren't promised tomorrow and I've heard that before, but it became very real to me that night,” McDorr said.

"I can clear as day go through those memories in my head, I mean second-by-second,” McDorr said.

The Georgia native was there in the grandstands with his then-fiancé to see Sugarland. The band is also from the Peach State, so for McDorr, it felt like a little piece of home in Indiana.

McDorr said this is the only photo he has from the night of the stage collapse. Photo Credit: Thomas McDorr

The couple never got to see Sugarland.

“I told her to stay in her seat and I ran down and I ran towards the stage to help anyone that I could,” McDorr said. He was 21-years-old at the time.

McDorr remembers the first person he found was not alive, and neither was the next. He recalls taking off his shirt to help stop a child from bleeding.

"What struck me so much about that night was how many people were praying and crying out to God and in people's worst moments, for people of faith, tend to turn towards God for meaning, for health, for strength,” McDorr said in the chapel at Methodist Hospital.

He continued, “I prayed with people because I didn’t really know what else to do. Phones weren’t working, no one could get a phone call out and so I remember just holding people’s hands and just praying with them.”

For five years, McDorr said he avoided anything tied to that night. He got married, graduated from bible college, and got a job during those years, but he felt like something was missing.

The nightmares from that night replayed over and over in his head.

"There was this moment of, ‘Okay what am I doing with my life? And what can I do that would make me feel fulfilled and would be meaningful work for me?’ " McDorr questioned.

With some research, he decided he needed to become a hospital chaplain.

Photo Credit: Thomas McDorr

"Since the very first day of walking into the hospital, I knew I belonged. I had found what I had meant to do,” McDorr said with a smile.

For the last four years, McDorr's job as a trauma chaplain is to work with Hoosiers facing life-changing situations.

"Coming into this work with that perspective of I know where these patients have come from and the panic and terror they must've experienced,” McDorr said.

Photo Credit: Thomas McDorr

Although he said he will never understand the why of that night, it was a part of God's plan.

"I would've never been a chaplain today if it had not been for that moment,” McDorr said.

Today, the father is walking the same hospital hallways that were filled with families, doctors, and nurses 10 years ago, now as part of his calling to help others.

"When I come in, I know this is what I'm meant to do, and I have something to give to these people,” McDorr said.

Mcdorr said he has never seen or heard from the victims he helped the night of the collapse, but his message to them - "Your pain and your trauma is not forgotten."

The trauma chaplain recently began a trauma support group through Methodist to continue a safe space for survivors after inpatient treatment.