Nurses Help Nurses After Losing Nearly All in California Fire

Troy Brown, RN

December 10, 2018

A group of nurses is helping nurses who lost everything — including their jobs — when their hospital was badly damaged during the November 2018 wildfire known as the Camp Fire, which struck the town of Paradise, California.

"This whole hospital burned down, and many nurses have lost now their jobs, their homes, and narrowly escaped with their lives. It just impacts so many healthcare providers here," Kelley Muldoon Rieger, MSN, RN, PNP, chief operating officer, Show Me Your Stethoscope (SMYS), told Medscape Medical News.

Feather River Hospital, the largest employer in Paradise, has more than 1000 full-time and part-time employees, including almost 100 nurses. The staff was forced to evacuate all 67 patients on November 8 as the fire surrounded the hospital. The hospital is expected to reopen sometime in 2020, according to California Healthline.

The fire was first reported near Pulga, California, at 6:33 AM on November 8. It moved quickly, catching the hospital staff by surprise. Soon they were evacuating the hospital, as they were quickly running out of escape options. The fire lasted for 17 days and devasted Paradise before it was contained on November 25.

"Nurse to Nurse"

SMYS, a Facebook group with 650,000 members, adopted some of the families, playing Santa and giving the children toys for the holidays. "But we wanted to do more," Rieger said.

SMYS threw a holiday party on December 5.

The party included music, dinner, and a visit from Santa, who arrived on a big, beautiful sleigh, Rieger said. Each child received a gift. The group wanted to bring the community together to look forward and to have hope. "No one's feeling very festive here," she added.

Some of the attendees at the Christmas party.

Tamara Ferguson, RN, a labor and delivery nurse who was working that day and who has been working locally to help plan some of the events, said the nurses she's seen were "thankful for having an opportunity the other night to just have a distraction, and that Christmas party was absolutely amazing."

Ferguson's children returned to school Monday, December 10, after being away for more than a month, and the nurses worry about their children's well-being during this time.

She said the party may be one of the last times many of her coworkers see each other, and "there's great sadness" among her coworkers at the loss of their work family. The trauma they experienced will be with them for some time, and Ferguson said it's hard seeing her coworkers in so much pain. Even things that usually bring happiness, like Christmas decorations, are a sad reminder for many of the things they've lost. "There's so many triggers, everywhere you look, for these people who have lost everything," Ferguson explained.

Nurse Tamara Ferguson, in front with mask, with other colleagues during the fires.

The party was a bright spot for the nurses, with the community coming together to donate the venue, the music, and the catering.

The group's members helped buy toys. "We're not making money off this — it's just nurse to nurse, directly making a difference in someone's life and sending a message," Reiner said. More than 80 gifts were purchased, and the party was organized in only 6 days, she added.

Work Clothes and Stethoscopes Help Nurses Move Forward

Scrubs Magazine and Cherokee Uniforms started the Angels in Paradise project and organized the donation of 1000 stethoscopes and 10,000 items of medical clothing (8000 scrubs and 2000 pairs of shoes and socks) to nurses and other healthcare providers at the hospital on December 6 and 7. SMYS, Dickies Medical Uniforms, MDF Instruments, Care Wear Uniforms, Celeste Stein, Emerald Health Services, and the Daisy Foundation joined in to help.

Ferguson said the nurses were "overwhelmed by the generosity." The range of sizes and variety of items was impressive, she added.

The donated items are giving the nurses "the tools they need to go to work again," Ferguson explained. She received two sets of scrubs, a scrub jacket, shoes, socks, and a stethoscope. She was able to get scrubs in neutral colors, which will enable her to wear them in a variety of clinical settings. That's important, because, like most of her coworkers, she doesn't know where she'll work next.

Ferguson's home survived the fire, but the scrubs she was wearing were ruined, and she left the stethoscope she's had since nursing school in the hospital during the rush to evacuate.

More than once she thought she was going to die as she and her coworkers shepherded their patients to safety.

Burned-out ambulance near Paradise, California. All occupants made it out safely.

Ferguson lives in nearby Chico, California, and her home was spared, but she lost her job and her coworkers. She now shares her home with several family members whose own homes burned in the fire.

These items are helping the nurses move forward. "They were crying. They were so thankful for what went on today," Ferguson said.

Ferguson said she saw an Emergency Department physician as the scrubs were being distributed, and physicians and other healthcare providers attended the party as well.

"Nurses Take Care of Patients, and We Take Care of Nurses"

A number of nurses expressed guilt about accepting the scrubs and other items, and Ferguson tried to reassure them. Nurses are givers, not takers, she said, so to be in a place where they need things is very humbling.

Show Me Your Stethoscope came together in the fall of 2015, Rieger explained. "[T]he Miss America pageant had a contestant, Miss Colorado, who came out in her scrubs and stethoscope and gave a beautiful monologue about being a nurse. It was lovely, and it touched so many of us," Rieger said.

"But then the next morning the talk show hosts of The View made fun of her, saying things like, 'Why is she wearing a doctor's stethoscope?' and 'Is she wearing a costume?' The reaction across the country was so swift and strong from nurses, and companies like Johnson & Johnson pulled advertising," Rieger explained.

Rieger said SMYS focuses "on philanthropy, advocacy, education, and building our community. One of our main missions is that nurses take care of patients, and we take care of nurses. We've gotten involved after natural disasters like the hurricanes, helping out in shelters within hours — even before the Red Cross deployed — and man-made incidents like the Las Vegas shooting and the Pulse shooting [in Orlando, Florida], and when our members started telling us stories and asking for help after the Camp Fire."

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