When a raging wildfire — feeding off blowing winds and weeks of desiccating heat, also whipped up a freak, blazing tornado-like vortex with 140-mile-an-hour gusts and a 500-yard diameter — common sense might have dictated that affected Northern Californians should flee as fast and as far as possible.
While many did, correctly heeding authorities’ emergency evacuation pleas, some courageous residents of Redding, Calif., pop. 91,000, decided to stay.
No, they were neither daring nor foolish. They were doctors, nurses, and medical personnel, who — along with first responders like police, fire fighters, and civil defense personnel — put the care and safety of others’ lives ahead of their own.
With all the many criticisms that may be leveled about health care in this country, the medical staff at the Dignity and other hospitals in the Redding and Shasta County areas deserve recognition and gratitude for their service and sacrifice.
As Buzzfeed news service reported, 40 doctors and other staffers kept their one hospital open, tending to 145 or so patients, and sleeping on floors themselves, even as a dramatic and horrific wildfires raged all around. The fire, they knew, destroyed many of their homes and forced their families, friends, and other loved ones to evacuate the area and to find other accommodations, including packing into overrun motel rooms.
Michele Woods, a palliative care nurse who found comforting purpose in caring for others, even after learning her own home was razed by the wildfire and her family was left homeless, told Buzzfeed:
“Those who are coming in are very sick and we have to take care of them. The hospital is really resilient. We’re a family. What we are doing for our patients we are doing for each other. It’s a community of caring right now.”
That kind of dedication and commitment not only deserves a salute, it offers a powerful reminder about the key role that smaller community hospitals play. Many offer quality, affordable medical care and services, treating patients nationwide who choose not to or who cannot be looked after at big city hospitals or regional academic medical centers.
But while community hospitals, especially in ex-urban and rural areas, may be caregivers of first choice for tens of millions, they’re also themselves imperiled — and not just by calamities, natural and man-made (like, sadly, mass shootings or criminal outbursts). Instead, the economics of health care are taking their toll, with one expert group estimating that 637 of 2,000 rural facilities may shut their doors as hospitals consolidate into chains and distant bean-counting executives demand cost efficiencies to bolster corporate profits for avaricious investors.
The rural health care crisis means that patients, including expectant moms, may be forced into bigger and bigger ordeals to get even routine, hospital-based medical services that others, say residents of the nation’s capital, may take for granted.
In my practice, I see the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and I’m often a critic of the profit-grabbing medical care industry. But as has been underscored in the disastrous California wildfires — dozens of them roaring across the state, devouring hundreds of thousands of acres, razing thousands of homes and displacing tens of thousands of people in what experts say now is a frightening year-round threat that can only vaporize denials about the harms of climate change — medical personnel, hospitals, clinics, and, of course, valiant first-responders can muster amazing, courageous action in disasters when they’re help is most needed. We’ve seen it in hurricanes and other tragedies.
We might best honor these outstanding efforts by redoubling our collective efforts to ensure America’s health care system is as accessible, affordable, safe, efficient, and excellent as possible.