Uncertain prognosis

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

Adventist Health Feather River suffered significant damage to lower portions of the hospital, including radiological services, but the main building remains standing.

As the Camp Fire scorched its way across the Ridge, employees at Paradise’s hospital and associated care facilities raced to get patients out of flames’ way.

One employee of Adventist Health Feather River, evacuating the medical center, found himself trapped on the Pentz Road site—long enough to see his house, across the street, burn down. He, and the patients with whom he sheltered in place, made it out safely.

With ambulances full and helicopters taken, nurses and support staff placed patients in personal vehicles for transport off the hill—to Enloe Medical Center, Oroville Hospital and Orchard Hospital in Gridley—along treacherous roadways. Hours later, each pulled up to the emergency entrance, brought their passengers inside, then asked, without hesitation, “What can I do to help?”

“The people that were on the front lines in this situation, they were absolutely courageous,” Enloe CEO Mike Wiltermood said. “You can’t imagine what those folks went through.”

Their bosses acknowledged as much at an employee town hall Monday morning (Nov. 12) at the Enloe Conference Center. Executives praised their Paradise team, with Scott Reiner—corporate CEO and chair of Feather River’s board—telling the capacity crowd and webcast audience, “I’m truly thankful to all of you, and truly, truly sorry.”

What Adventist Health did not do was guarantee the future of their workplace.

Asked twice to commit to reopening the hospital, leaders hedged. They essentially told employees what Jill Kinney, a regional director of communications, told the CN&R over the weekend when asked how much, and whether, Adventist Health will rebuild Feather River: “We are very committed to that community; that said, it’s still way too early for us to make any of those determinations at this point.”

Bill Wing, corporate president of Adventist Health, described a two-tier process of evaluating needs of the community, inside and outside the “burn zone”—but noted that a lot of the medical center’s patients have been “displaced; we don’t know where they’re at.” So, Adventist Health will first look to “gear up the ambulatory component” of Feather River’s operation (i.e., clinics). Then, essentially, the organization will see how the town redevelops as it “plan[s] to address those needs going forward.”

As for the facilities, much of the main campus and many satellite clinics remain standing. Kinney told the CN&R that “standing” doesn’t mean they know the full extent of the damage. Wing echoed that point as he listed the buildings that survived, suffered harm or were destroyed. He said assessment crews began work Monday.

In the short term, Adventist Health Feather River set up a command station at Enloe to coordinate care with other hospitals and care centers. Oroville Hospital CEO Robert Wentz said he spoke with Feather River’s interim president, Hal Chilton, and nursing chief about immediate logistics.

Photo by Melissa Daugherty

Adventist Health has begun checking for internal damage to facilities, such as the emergency room, that appear untouched outside.

Wiltermood planned to meet with leadership to start formulating long-term plans.

“There may be some areas of the Feather River campus that can get back into operation sooner rather than later,” he said. “At this point, between the three remaining hospitals in Butte County, in-patient capacity probably isn’t the concern—it will be physicians and nurses and the clinical folks that we’ll need to take care of patients. I’m sure with Feather River and Adventist collaboration, we’ll be able to fill those needs, at least in the immediate future.”

Enloe already has brought Feather River nurses and doctors on board, issuing them emergency credentials to work in the hospital.

“One of my bigger concerns is many of our clinics are backed up already,” Wiltermood continued, “and if the primary care component and the emergency room component in Paradise are completely devastated, that’s going to be tough.”

Wentz concurred, noting that Feather River’s hospital census— 101 beds, with 69 patients on Thursday—can be absorbed. “The bigger issue is outpatient,” he said, “and while we lost the hospital, we did not lose the doctors. So the resource is still there; we just need to make sure they find a place where they can operate and we can see the patients.”

Oroville Hospital can provide that access now, Wentz added, by expanding the hours and adding days at existing medical offices and clinics. He anticipates an ongoing need for prescription refills and other routine health care needs.

Feather River closed for the first time in its history, dating to 1950, back in 2008, because of its proximity to the Humboldt Fire. It was ready to reopen quickly—delayed more than a month by state-mandated inspections. This time may prove more difficult.

With all the Camp Fire destruction, “I think probably about a year,” Wentz estimated. “It took them around 90 days to get back up totally [in 2008], and that was with absolutely no damage to the hospital.”

Adventist Health has experienced similar disasters elsewhere. Kinney—whose region covers the northernmost swath of California, from Willits to Paradise—cited a recent series of wildfires in Lake County as an example. What they’ve learned, she said, is “people are so resilient, and I can’t say enough about how our teams work together to really help the community and make this process move along as quickly as we can from a devastation moment to a recovery moment.”

Enloe has over 300 employees who live in Paradise or Magalia. Wiltermood said the hospital will make sure to be cognizant of time off and offer grief counseling. Meanwhile, patients with Anthem Blue Cross as their health insurer got a reprieve when Enloe and Anthem, whose coverage agreement ended Nov. 1, reinstated their contract through Dec. 31.

Moving forward, Wiltermood said, “this isn’t a two- or three-week [event] and everything goes back to normal. This is something our communities are going to be dealing with probably for years as we try to rebuild.”

Concluded Wentz: “During these times, we realize we’re really part of the same community, bound by shared values and love of the area.”