RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Northern California last week as massive wildfires spread rapidly through the town of Santa Rosa, two hospitals were evacuated. KQED's April Dembosky has this story of one nurse who worked through the night to get patients out safely, even though her own house was in the path of the flames.
APRIL DEMBOSKY, BYLINE: Julayne Smithson was working the overnight shift in the ICU of Kaiser Hospital when the fires started racing through Santa Rosa early Monday morning. She had no idea how close they were. She was too busy taking care of her patient.
JULAYNE SMITHSON: One of the nurses came up to me. And she said, Julayne, I'm sorry but your house is not going to make it.
DEMBOSKY: Smithson is 55. She recently moved from Indiana and had just bought a new home a few weeks ago. From the hospital window, she could see the flames moving through her neighborhood.
SMITHSON: I was so busy working the last couple of weeks that I didn't get my insurance, which I never do. I never ever, ever go uninsured. And I kept saying, you know, tomorrow I'm going to do that. Tomorrow I'm going to do that.
DEMBOSKY: Smithson asked a colleague to watch her patient while she raced home to try to save a few things. The fire was a block away.
SMITHSON: I knew I didn't have much time. So I ran inside. And I thought I have to get my nursing documents because if I'm going to lose everything I own, I have to be able to work to care for patients.
DEMBOSKY: She grabbed the papers, an extra pair of scrubs and a nightgown and raced back to the ICU. Over the next two hours, smoke filled the hospital.
SMITHSON: All of a sudden the police busted in the door. And they said, everybody out. Grab what you can carry. Get your patients and go now.
DEMBOSKY: The hospital had 130 patients to evacuate. Patients who could walk, the staff directed to city buses. Patients who couldn't walk, like Smithson's bedridden patient, had to wait.
SMITHSON: It was a little bit stressful because we couldn't get enough ambulances there quick enough.
DEMBOSKY: Nearby Sutter Hospital was also evacuating close to 80 patients. Some ambulances had to drive through fire to get there.
SMITHSON: A lot of nurses were - and staff were putting patients in their cars and driving them to the hospital. And then other people were carrying people on blankets, you know, people that couldn't walk and putting them in cars.
DEMBOSKY: It took about 15 minutes for an ambulance to arrive for her patient. But to Smithson, it felt like forever. Her team was manually pumping air into her patient's mouth with an airbag. It took five of them to push him back and forth through the parking lot several times to get away from smoke and flames. His medication was running low, and he was getting agitated.
SMITHSON: The pharmacy premixes those medicines for us, but we didn't have time to prepare for extra medication for a trip like that because it just came up so fast.
DEMBOSKY: Her patient and many others made it safely to Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital about four miles away. Close to 100 more were transferred to Kaiser in San Rafael about 40 miles away. Smithson followed them. Her husband was supposed to fly in from Indiana in two days. But with their new home gone, she told him to wait.
SMITHSON: And I said, well, I don't have anywhere to go right now. And we don't know what's going on. So I said I'll just go to San Rafael, and I'll help there.
DEMBOSKY: Another nurse offered Smithson a pull-out couch in a spare room. She's been sleeping there during the day and working 7 p.m. to 7 a.m. every night since the fire. She says all she wants to do right now is help patients so she doesn't have to think about what she's lost. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky in San Rafael.
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MONTAGNE: And that story is part of a reporting partnership with NPR, KQED and Kaiser Health News which, by the way, is not affiliated with Kaiser Permanente Medical System.