Three women from St. Joseph Health found purpose, refuge at work during 2017 fires
There is little sign today of the smoke-laced chaos that dominated the area around 1165 Montgomery Drive the night of Oct. 9, 2017, when Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital became the only local hospital — out of three — open and functioning after the Tubbs wildfire roared into Santa Rosa and violated its city limits.
On that terrifying night as flames engulfed more than 5,000 homes and businesses, hundreds of Memorial Hospital employees found refuge and purpose at their medical campus. It was fortunate to be able to continue treating patients as the inferno forced the closure of Sutter and Kaiser Permanente hospitals.
As the only hospital in Santa Rosa attending to patients during the fire, employees and local residents alike were drawn to the medical center. Since the fires nearly two years ago, a sense of camaraderie and shared purpose developed at Memorial, with the goal of becoming more resilient should another fire or natural disaster strike, said Tyler Hedden, CEO of St. Joseph Health Sonoma County.
The stories of three St. Joseph employees — two in Sonoma County and one in Napa County — are representative of the labor that went into caring for the community during the darkest hours of disaster almost two years ago.
Doctor pitching in
Dr. Elizabeth Tito and her husband, Joe, were sleeping when their teenage son woke them up and asked “what’s that glow?”
Tito, a breast surgeon, and her husband, a general surgeon, had just moved to Santa Rosa from Massachusetts. The couple, who had begun planning their move to Wine Country five years earlier, had recently landed jobs. Tito worked at St. Joseph, while her husband was at Healdsburg Hospital.
That night, the fire triggered an instinctive fear she’d never felt before.
“This is primal. This is fire roaring down that’s going to destroy everything in its path, and there’s nothing that you’re going to do about that except get the hell out of its way. That’s the kind of fire we saw coming at us. It was unbelievable, I’ve never seen anything like it,” Elizabeth Tito said.
After running the gauntlet of cars and traffic from her home to Highway 12, Tito knew they would be going to Memorial Hospital. It was their haven, as the only major hospital in Santa Rosa that was not surrounded by fire.
Other hospital staff did the same and soon the campus on Montgomery Drive filled with medical staff, families and pets wandering, a sort of Noah’s Ark, she recalled.
Tito was new to the area, and as a breast surgeon her field of expertise was not directly needed during the crisis. What was needed was her leadership and tendency to attack a problem — even directing traffic — until she comes up with a solution.
She got as many people as she could settled and then headed over to the hospital and joined her son, who was doing whatever he could to help. At one point, the two were outside the hospital’s front entrance directing traffic away from the ambulance driveways.
The next day, still unsure if her home had been destroyed, Tito said she took her son to local emergency shelters and began noticing there was a lack of communication between the shelters and charity centers that were collecting donations and dispatching volunteers.