Three women from St. Joseph Health found purpose, refuge at work during 2017 fires

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Covering the recovery

Read more about how the North Bay business community continues to reset after the October 2017 wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

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.

Covering the recovery

Read more about how the North Bay business community continues to reset after the October 2017 wildfires: nbbj.news/recovery

Tito went around to all the shelters and drafted a log of what they needed, then communicated that to volunteer and donation centers.

“I didn’t have to treat breast cancer during that period of time,” she said, noting the key was helping in any way she could. “There’s not many docs that would direct traffic.”

Honing crisis skills

Vicki White, the chief nursing officer for St. Joseph, lost her home on Wedgewood Way in Santa Rosa’s hilly Fountaingrove neighborhood. She said that when she and her husband evacuated, she recalled seeing people on the street “shell shocked.”

When she got to the hospital, she put on a pair of scrubs and socks and went down to the conference room that was being set up as a command center. She’d only been working at the hospital since April 2016 and quickly learned, “there’s nothing like having that experience to hone your skills.”

During a disaster like a wildfire, she said, local emergency response teams and organizations have to be able to manage the crisis on their own. It usually takes at least 72 hours before FEMA, Cal Fire or other state or federal agencies arrive to help.

“Hospitals have to know how to manage in a crisis,” she said. “This is why we drill.”

She said one of the first things done was an assessment of their own ranks: caregivers, nurses, doctors. That was hampered by spotty communication networks. Text messages worked but some phone calls wouldn’t go through because of damaged cellphone towers.

White said a call came in from a colleague, asking, “Can you take all of our NICU (neonatal intensive care) babies, because we just put out a fire on the roof.”

On that October night of 2017, she learned the strength of her hospital community, and in work they found a sort of refuge.

“When you came in here to take care of others, you felt more normal,” White said. “You couldn’t do anything about your house, but you could care for others.”

One out of six area St. Joseph-affiliated doctors lost their homes. The fierce Tubbs fire — the nation’s most destructive at the time — certainly was a life-changing experience, she said.

White said that nearly two years after the blaze, there still are many hospital staff members who have not been able to rebuild houses or who have left the community.

It’s common, she said, for colleagues to show each other photos of how their home rebuilding projects are going. “It’s part of the fabric of how people share their lived experiences,” White said.

Director thinks ahead

Over in Napa Valley, Lois Husted helped direct emergency response activities at St. Joseph’s Queen of the Valley Medical Center during the Atlas fire.

Husted, base/emergency management coordinator for Queen of the Valley, has a backgound in emergency nursing and has been doing disaster planning for almost 25 years.

The past two years of fires tell her “we’re going to be seeing it more and more.”

The weekend of the October 2017 fire, Husted was assisting at the first-aid tent of the Safeway Open golf tournament, which Queen of the Valley helped sponsor. When she got up Sunday morning, she noticed how windy it was.

When she heard there was a fire just before 9:45 p.m. she knew enough about wildfires to know that high winds posed serious danger.

She called the Napa County emergency medical services administrator and asked if there was cause for concern.

She asked how bad the fires were and he said he didn’t know, but was headed to county emergency headquarters and would call her back once he got more information.

“I knew better,” she said. “I immediately got up, threw my scrubs on. ... I came directly to the hospital and we set up our command center.”

In the early morning hours of Oct. 9, Queen of the Valley, the only trauma center in Napa County, also became an evacuation destination for Napa’s CHP helicopter, which evacuated 45 people from Atlas Peak.

The hospital was taking evacuees from points north, east and west, many of the people suffering with respiratory conditions.

“We had docs who were evacuated who came into work, and staff evacuated came into work,” she said. “... Staff who lost homes came into work.”

Husted was awake working for 36 straight hours before going to sleep for two hours. Then she went back to work.

The fires were relentless, she said. Steps taken during the Napa earthquake of 2014, such as setting up tents outside to care for people, were not possible because of the thick smoke.

“The hardest part was not knowing when the end was going to be,” she said. “The fires started merging. And there was no way of knowing when the fires would end.”

Husted, like many other medical staff and first responders in the North Bay, learned an important lesson during the October 2017 fires, one that was forged through camaraderie and mission.

“We all partner together, public health, fire department, (ambulance services), skilled nursing homes,” she said. “We really work together as a community on how best we can take care of everybody. ... The expectation is we’re going to be there for them and we need to be.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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