'Everybody Was a Hero': Kaiser Employees Evacuate Patients While Own Homes Ignite

While their homes went up in flames during one of the most destructive firestorms in California history, several nurses, doctors and Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa staff stayed behind to save those in need.

A "wall of fire" late Sunday and early Monday swiftly ripped through a mobile home park next to the hospital, forcing hospital staff to evacuate roughly 130 patients, including the critically ill and laboring mothers. At least 55 hospital employees lost their homes while the flames raged, but patient care was of the utmost importance at the time.

This time lapse video shows the devastation left behind by the wildfires that tore through the Fountaingrove and Coffey Park neighborhoods.

"I would say that every employee, staff member and physician went above and beyond," Dr. Joshua Weil, an emergency physician working at the hospital at the time of the evacuation, said. "It would be really easy to imagine watching the flames, getting phone calls knowing that your own home was about to go up in smoke, that you would just run and try to go attend to those needs. But the reality is that everybody was committed to our patients here. It’s very easy to say that everybody was a hero."

Hospital officials made the call around 3:30 a.m. to evacuate. With shooting flames roaring just yards away, nurses and doctors hastily wheeled out patient after patient. By 6 a.m., everyone was out.

Some patients were taken away by ambulance. Others were shipped off in buses. Even some were whisked away in private cars.

"Nurses volunteered to take some patients knowing that they could expedite the process," Weil said. "Their willingness to take that on in this situation really helped deliver the best care to our patients to keep everybody safe. It was a dramatic process."

Weil and Judy Coffey, a registered nurse, senior vice president and area manager with Kaiser for Marin and Sonoma counties, said that Monday's successful evacuation marked the first time the hospital had ever been forced to vacate in a real emergency.

"It was an amazing, amazing experience to see how the heroes of this facility worked in collaboration," Coffey said.

Despite celebrating their accomplishments at work, several hospital staff members are faced with devastation at home. Weil admitted that the number of hospital staff members who lost their homes "is going to go way up."

Coffey, who lives in the now-gutted Fountain Grove area, is among the newly homeless.

"I've not seen my home, but the entire hillside is gone, so I know my home is gone," she said.

Patients at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital were also forced to flee the flames when the firestorm ignited. Both Kaiser in Santa Rosa and Sutter have since set up reunification phone lines to help link evacuated patients with their loved ones. The Kaiser reunification phone number is 855-599-0033. Sutter's reunification phone number is 707-543-4511.

Kaiser in Santa Rosa likely won't reopen until the end of the week at the earliest, according to Weil and Coffey. Officials have to make sure the hospital's electricity, water supplies, gas lines and technological equipment are properly working.

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