Untold stories of compassion during California’s wildfires

Healthcare facilities band together to care for fire-displaced patients

Flames from California's Northern Bay in October fire creep closer to homes. (Shutterstock image)

When details of California’s deadliest fire in history hit the news, the magnitude of the devastation was staggering; Forty-three people lost their lives, thousands of homes and property was destroyed, over one million acres of land was burned, and 100,000 people were displaced during the tense moments of this natural disaster.

On a grand scale, the horrific events left an indelible impression on residents’ lives. But as history shows, in the face of disaster, it’s the efforts of a small few that can overturn seemingly overwhelming circumstances and make a lasting difference.

Sonoma and Napa counties were both within the zones of evacuation. In those areas were several skilled nursing and acute care facilities full of patients that were forced to evacuate. The needs of those patients were too specific and too demanding to simply move them to generalized evacuation centers. Every patient needed specialized attention that only medical professionals give—and most of those medical professionals already had their hands full at medical tents treating the thousands of other evacuees.

Aware of the urgent need, the staff at six of Generations Healthcare’s 13 Northern California facilities—Smith Ranch, Tunnell, Lawton, Bayberry, Walnut Creek, and Pleasanton—rolled up their sleeves, opened their doors, and welcomed displaced patients with beds, staff and care. When the threat of fire reached a pinnacle, a total of 150 displaced residents had found a loving hand offering care and refuge in a Generations facility.

“It was very fulfilling to see everyone coming together in a bad situation and seeing the residents reassured and comforted,” said Edwin Cabigao, director of clinical services for Generations’ northern region.

Although small in numbers, the Generations staff set out to find patients and give them the care they needed. Smith Ranch, a Generations facility in San Rafael, California, coordinated with a local evacuation center to collect patients. Within two hours, Generations was placing patients with beds, meals, water and care, all removed from the smoke-filled air.

“We just banded together,” said Dan Daly, administrator at Lawton, a facility in San Francisco. “We knew that we were here to help. It just seemed like the natural thing to do.” Lawton only has 61 beds but still made room for 15 patients.

When the fire started on Sunday, October 8, Daly and his team worked past midnight for two days preparing their facility to receive evacuees, evacuees who didn’t arrive until Wednesday. Staff, scheduled or not, continued to work, staying up till 2 a.m. to assist their new charges, working with the original facilities to ensure each patient’s medications and records were in order.

Generations’ Tunnell Center in San Francisco took in about 70 patients while the Walnut Creek facility found beds for 11 displaced residents. “The night of the fire, we got a call from medical service at 3 a.m.,” said Dorothy Couto, administrator for the Walnut Creek facility. “We received four the first day and seven more the next day from the VA hospital. I was worried things would get out of control, but our team handled it very well. I was so proud of this team.”

In the face of disaster, it’s the big scope of events that get the attention. But, sometimes the biggest stories rise from the efforts of a few people, committed to making a difference. In this case, the efforts of a relatively small staff working at six Northern California healthcare facilities remind us that every day, regardless of circumstances, provides new opportunities to make a powerful impact.

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