In the wee hours of Sunday, Oct. 8, Sonoma West Medical Center’s CEO, John Peleuses, got a call from executives at Sutter Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital saying it was evacuating due to the fires and would be sending patients to the small Sebastopol hospital.

“I didn’t know what to expect. I envisioned quite a ride,” he said.

Barbara Vogelsang, chief nursing officer at SWMC drove to the hospital in the middle of the night and was anxious.

“I’ve been a nurse for 30 years. On my way I thought ‘Oh dear God.’ I’ve seen a lot, but I was pretty nervous,” she said.

A Sutter spokesperson said 70 patients were evacutaed Monday morning, Oct. 9 due to the Tubbs fire. Of those, 23 were brought to SWMC by a stream of ambulances, Vogelsang said.

There were a few patients the hospital was not prepared to treat, including a heart surgery patient and two burn patients, who were transferred to St. Francis in San Francisco. But aside from a few tense moments, things went smoothly for a crew that had never seen such volume.

“You’d think it would be total chaos, but it just hasn’t been. It was controlled busy. You do what you have to do,” Vogelsang said.

On an average day, the 37-bed hospital sees 15 – 17 patients. On Monday, the hospital jumped from four to 51 patients. Tuesday, 36 were treated, and 54 on Wednesday.

Six additional beds were set up in the hallways.

As all of this was going on, the hospital was also conducting orientation for 14 new employees.

During the crisis, staff is working overtime as are volunteers.

“I’m very proud and impressed with the staff who have stepped up and picked up the slack,” Peleuses said.

The hospital has run short on some supplies, like linens, and is getting assistance from Sutter Health Emergency Medical Supply program.

The hospital has also set up a daycare, so employees with kids can come to work.

Food donations have poured in from the community, including Round Table Pizza, Lucky’s Market, Fircrest Market, and individuals who bring things like homemade pies.

The hospital has also received calls from former employees who want to help.

The chance to prove itself in time of crisis might be just what the hospital needs to survive, said Peleuses, who took over the reins in March.

The former Palm Drive Hospital reopened in 2015 as SWMC, and has been struggling to stay open. As of February, the hospital faced more than $6.8 million in outstanding bills. It also lost public funding that amounts to about $1 million per year, District Board Treasurer Gail Thomas told the Journal in March.

The Palm Drive Health Care District has tried various measure to turn things around, including hiring an outside management company.

In June, the hospital suffered another setback when mold was discovered in one of the surgical unit’s sterilizing sinks, forcing the unit to close.

The problem has been corrected, but the hospital is still waiting for government permits and inspections before reopening the unit, possibly by the end of the month.

It’s the commitment from the leadership and staff that has held the hospital together, Vogelsang said.

“There’s a sense of pride among the staff. Through all the trials and tribulations, these people are dedicated to being here,” she said. “Through thick and thin this is something they are committed to and never lost sight of the vision of this hospital.”

The current influx of patients is not expected to create a windfall, Peleuses said, as it’s a trade off between covering care and expenses, as the cost of payroll and supplies will climb.

However, he’s optimistic.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to experience the hospital, which is something new and different from Kaiser and Sutter,” he said. “It’s not the way we’d want it, on the back of a tragedy, but maybe we’re turning a corner.”

Cynthia Sweeney covers health care, hospitality, residential real estate, education, employment and business insurance. Reach her at Cynthia.Sweeney@busjrnl.com or call 707-521-4259.