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Rising from the ashes: How Adventist Feather River is moving on after the Camp Fire wreaked havoc

Jill Kinney said in the face of disaster, training saved lives. And as a health system, your job isn't just to heal patients, but staff too.

Beth Jones Sanborn, Managing Editor

A ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening of the Feather River clinicA ribbon-cutting ceremony for the reopening of the Feather River clinic

For Adventist Feather River, whose flagship hospital in Paradise, California was badly damaged in this past Fall's deadly Camp wildfire, 2019 will be a reset, with a focus on rebuilding. And signs of progress were thankfully somewhat quick to come, relatively speaking. About a month and a half after the Camp Fire all but destroyed the town and killed dozens, they re-opened their large clinic and have been able to maintain continuity of care in many of the specialty clinic areas.

"We feel really proud of that. That was a big undertaking for all of us. Making sure staff were available. Making sure providers were available," said Jill Kinney, the system's executive director of marketing and communications.

Doing so was somewhat of a leap, considering when they reopened the clinic they weren't sure how much population was in the immediate area. Many evacuated, or tried to, during the fire and were displaced. But Kinney said they have found that the locals, though they are residing in outlying areas, are actually coming back in for their healthcare despite distance and logistical hurdles.

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More than medical needs

That's a compelling statement about the role a provider plays in its community, especially a sole provider. It's not just about healthcare, it's about finding comfort and healing in the familiar.

"I think our population of residents are really loyal to their providers. I think it's about your relationship with a provider. Though they may have been displaced they are trying to keep some continuity in their lives. I think their local providers are someone they are familiar with. It brings them a little more piece of mind and hope that things will return to normal," she said.

That's something for health systems to consider, what they truly mean to the patients they serve, especially in the face of tragedy. Your community may be looking to you for more than medical needs when everyone is just trying to get back to some sense of normalcy.

And it's not just patients who were struggling. Kinney said their staff has a "deep passion for caring for patients" and wanted to be there to help them. So even though staff may also be driving from afar to get to the clinic, it's equally important for them to be there working and seeing patients. For them too, it's a matter of feeling whole again and moving further and further away from the chaos of that fateful day.

Approximately 600 Feather River staff lost their homes to the Camp Fire, along with scores of residents. That's half of the systems staff of roughly 1200 associates.

Kinney said she couldn't remember exactly when they identified the fire,  but when they did it was already bearing down on them. Evacuation was almost immediate. Thankfully, it was something they had trained for...a lot. The 67 patients in house were evacuated in about 40 minutes she said amidst unimaginable conditions.

The raging inferno had triggered a mass exodus that quickly jammed the few major roads that led out of town. People abandoned vehicles and fled on foot with the flames nipping at their heels. First responders' resources were stretched to their limits, and at times during their evacuations, Kinney said they did not have ambulances or transportation available.

We had to make some hard decisions, she said. In some cases, staff used their own vehicles to move patients as well as some ambulances and first responder vehicles. Some patients were diverted back to the hospital due to the mass gridlock on the streets. Time and time again, the staff stepped up.

"Beings the clinicians that they are, they treated those patients as they waited for further evacuation. So it was a very dynamic situation. Later, they identified an area where it was safe for them to wait and that was out on a helipad. They were able to feel like they were safe and the patients were safe while they waited to be airlifted out," Kinney said.

Communication tips: Stay calm

For Kinney's communication team, emotions ran high as they found themselves cut off from the local Paradise team members on the ground, as she and other team members were at a meeting off-site. Kinney served as the PIO for the system, but could not reach her colleague at the hospital, who was in the midst of evacuating and had no cell service.

"It was extremely emotional. Two of my own staff members, I was worried because I had no idea where they were. I had spoken to them and they had provided me with some video of where they were and that time they were surrounded by fire and their cell phone service went dead and I was unable to find them until late that evening. So I was very concerned."

Hours later, they did establish contact and began to survey the damage. It was bad. The good news was that part of the upper level of the hospital was standing. So were the OB, ED, outpatient surgery center, home health, cancer center and sleep medicine departments. But the lower level of the hospital, chiller and utility area and most of the other outbuildings were badly damaged.

The hospital would be closed down for some time, bringing uncertainty to the staff and a community already forced to its knees.

Getting back up and running

Determined to buoy their associates and be a bridge to a new future, the system staged several town halls for staff to bring them together and communicate with a goal of placing 100 percent of staff in other facilities.

They put on job fair events where staff could learn about available positions and talent advisors were there to help match staff to positions elsewhere such as their Chico and Corning clinics, which house multiple specialties, as well as nearby hospice and other Adventist hospitals across the state as well as in Oregon and Hawaii.

They have been able to place 407 staff members in Adventist Health Feather River facilities in Paradise, Chico and Corning or at other Adventist Health facilities.

They've also had job fairs that included other health systems and local employers knowing that many employees can't leave the area for a variety of reasons, like family, or they plan to rebuild in Paradise so they want to stay. Kinney said they want to make sure those staff members have access to gainful employment, even if it isn't with them.

"It was reaffirming to me and the mission of the organization is "to inspire health, wholeness and hope. We really proved it in this case. It's not only for the community and the patients but for staff as well."

Beyond employment, the system set up an account where staff members system-wide could donate to help their Feather River colleagues As of earlier this month, they had raised a little more than $7 million, and they allocated all of those funds directly to associates to help them recover. The system also extended pay and benefits so they would be less stressed and could "feel whole" as they tried to recover.

Part of the recovery is assessing lessons learned. For Kinney, it all came down to teamwork under extraordinary pressure and all the work they had put into disaster training and drilling. A 40-minute evacuation would not have happened without it, especially with the challenges they faced. They had incident command centers set up locally and at their hub in St. Helena, which was essential. They set up 800 numbers for associates and patients to streamline communication, which was key since there was a lot of downed infrastructure around them.

But when she looks back on that day, the thing that pops out the most is the fearless dedication she saw and continues to see. And though uncertainty prevails in some ways, there is no doubt that their position in Paradise, and Butte County, is permanent.

"In some cases, during the evacuation, many of those staff members put their own lives at risk in order to help patients. That's pretty incredible. And they continued to follow through with those patients even after they landed at another facility," Kinney said. "It's not a matter of we reopen it's when. There is a lot to assess. I don't know what the sense of timing is at this. But we are definitely committed to that county. We are working diligently around the clock to figure out the next step."

Twitter: @BethJSanborn
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