By Katy Hillenmeyer
When California’s deadliest wildfires ripped through Sonoma County and surrounding counties in October 2017, they inflicted suffering unlike anything this region has endured. They also tapped a deep reservoir of compassion that united us, bearing witness to our community’s capacity to love one another without distinction — a commitment our founding sisters infused in our health system.
As spiritual care providers at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, the North Bay’s Level II trauma center, our chaplains frequently respond to life-shattering events. But the scale of this disaster, which took 44 lives, leveled more than 5,200 homes, and forced evacuations and closures at our city’s two other hospitals, redefined “all hands on deck.” Our six hospital-based chaplains needed help responding to the surge at our 329- and 80-bed hospitals, at a time when our coworkers and physicians, too, had fled their homes, evacuated dependent family members, lost power or cellphone service, and commuted around roads blocked by flames or rescue vehicles.
But thanks to rapidly responding in-house chaplains, joined by grief counseling partners from Hospice, mental health professionals, community clergy and volunteer massage therapists, we triaged this collective trauma and targeted crisis support accordingly.
From the early morning of Oct. 9, when wind-swept embers rained down on neighborhood after neighborhood, people with medical and non-medical needs alike streamed in through our hospital doors. Some suffered from burns and smoke inhalation; some were pregnant and, during active labor, had been transferred from nearby hospitals; others walked in simply seeking shelter.
Here are some chaplains’ firsthand accounts:
- “As the on-call chaplain the first night of the fires, I was called in about 5 a.m. Originally, I was asked to support families who were taking refuge in the hospital lobby and cafeteria. One woman was blind and in a wheelchair, with no phone, no money and just the clothes she was wearing. She’d been separated from her family at one of the city’s evacuation shelters. We got her some food in the cafeteria, where predawn service had kicked into high gear: executives and painters alike pitched in as cooks, all focused on tending to the hungry and sick. It brought a semblance of calm and comfort in the midst of chaos.”
- “With one unconscious, gravely burned patient, emergency nurses asked me to help locate his loved ones. This foreign-born gentleman’s cellphone and wallet provided the only clues, and the idea that he might be thousands of miles from family haunted me. I was later relieved to read in the newspaper of the way his friends rallied to his bedside.”
- “Another patient, who has lived with a physical disability since birth, shared how her friend saved her that first night by pushing her wheelchair from one open space in a park to another, maneuvering her to a new place every time the embers began to fall. He kept her covered with a blanket, burning his own face and arms to protect her.”
- “Just after the fires began, I visited an elderly patient severely burned on her forearms and hands. She’d been the primary caregiver for her husband. Despite strenuous effort, she was unable to get her husband out of their home in time, and he died. She was left to deal with her injuries, her grief, and her displacement. Thankfully, she had a loving family to care for her, but she faced a long, painful road.”
- “An ICU patient I visited had been admitted just before the fires started. She was intubated and sedated, and her husband was at her bedside. During her hospitalization, fire had destroyed their home. Two or three days later, she died. Throughout the week, her husband expressed gratitude that his wife had been spared the anxiety of losing their home.”
- “One patient whose home burned down surprised me with his exuberant spirit. He and his wife had spent the previous several months wrestling with the idea of selling their house and downsizing during their retirement, but that the thought of moving and ridding themselves of decades of possessions had felt daunting. Now, he didn’t have to deal with all of that, he said, and felt truly free.”
- “Long after the fires were contained, the vulnerability of burned-out families continued to manifest. One older woman fell and injured herself in the temporary quarters where she and her husband, who has dementia, had moved. As she recovered from surgery, she confronted worries about the burdens already carried by their adult children, as they manage their own lives. I can still see the stress on her face as she shared about the long journey she faced back to normalcy, not sure she would ever achieve it.”
- “I met a man whose uncle died in the fire. Most of the stories we heard came from patients, physicians, staff and volunteers who — in the hundreds — lost material possessions. But some people lost their lives. It was important to be fully present with this man as he remembered his uncle. It was a sacred act to accompany him in the silence and the grief and to receive his story with a compassionate heart.”
Senior Chaplain Kimberly Willis cites Sue Monk Kidd’s book The Invention of Wings, in which the author writes, “Empathy is the most mysterious transaction that the human soul can have, and it’s accessible to all of us, but we have to give ourselves the opportunity to identify, to plunge ourselves in a story where we see the world from the bottom up or through another’s eyes or heart.”
In the weeks after the firestorm, our healthcare team empathetically walked alongside co-workers and other community members whose lives the fires upended. It happened through fire-relief apartments and dormitories, outfitted seemingly overnight out of former hospital campus conference rooms and offices. It includes English- and Spanish-language support groups led by our Hospice team and November Schwartz rounds with clinicians who experienced the fires through different lenses of personal and professional hardship. Those rounds drew a standing-room-only crowd of colleagues together to a confidential, supportive forum where all could process grief, survivor’s guilt, and other emotions.
Throughout this suffering, people have tenderly held one another, stopping others they once might have passed quietly in the hallways to inquire caringly about the other’s welfare.
One of Chaplain Steve Lewis’s reflections captures a sense of the solidarity that continues to bind our community. He lived through a similar firestorm in San Diego about 15 years ago. His home was saved, but the ground was scorched within 20 feet of his front door.
“I had the good fortune to be able to return to my home within a couple hours and was able to personally thank the fire crew that had saved my house,” he said. “I discovered that it was an all-female crew of prison inmates. Sometimes moments of grace come from the most unexpected sources.”
Katy Hillenmeyer is the director of mission integration at St. Joseph Health-Sonoma County in Santa Rosa, CA.