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Dealing with Disaster: Lassen College Nurses Provide Crisis Support for Camp Fire Victims

Wednesday, December 12th, 2018

Lassen Colleges Nursing students at the Camp Fire in Butte County – photos provided

by Christi Myers RN
Nursing Director
Lassen Community College

Before I began my career in nursing education at Lassen Community College I was blessed to have spent the better part of my previous seven years of nursing serving our community as a preparedness coordinator for Lassen County Public Health. My position required coordination, forethought, planning and preparation for our healthcare community’s response and resilience when it came to disaster situations. Having left the disaster preparedness world behind, I have been unfortunately surprised to see how my past practice has translated into a crucial and relevant part of our students’ learning.

Lassen Community College Nursing is not new to disaster response – as a newly revitalized program each of our three cohorts have been granted the opportunity to respond as competent and capable nursing students during three separate local and regional disasters in just the last two years.

Between September 23rd, 2017 and October 13th, 2017, a total of fifty possible cases of viral meningitis had been reported to Lassen County Public Health, leading to a Health Department order to close both the local high school and college for a period of time. As many students and staff enjoyed the impromptu and much needed break from the semester, Lassen Community College Nursing Students began their first full scale response to a very serious medical need in our community.

During the viral meningitis outbreak student nurses from the class of 2017 worked feverishly around the clock to ensure that Banner Lassen Medical Center had the help they needed with the expected surge in patients. The facility had witnessed our student’s abilities and work ethic first hand and trusted in them so much that we were one of the first calls when the medical surge was expected and extra skilled hands were needed for patient care.

Students were assigned to day and night shifts working alongside experienced nurses as well as manning the community call center. Quickly, our nursing instructional staff realized that the student experience was not only a benefit to the facility in a time of great need but rather was a crucial turning point for many of our future nurses, defining the type of nurse they would desire to become.

Just five months later the Lassen Community College Nursing cohort of 2018 exceeded expectations on site as they assisted with the complete evacuation of Lassen Nursing and Rehabilitation’s residents in response to a fire in the building. After all residents were safely evacuated the second cohort of nursing students spent the following days working around the clock at the evacuation site ensuring that all residents needs continued to be met.

Again, students donated their time to work full day and night shifts in support of the facility’s staff. The student experience provided opportunities for critical thinking and safe actions in moments of immediate need.

For many in Northern California, November 8th, 2018 will be committed to memory. We watched and listened as our neighbors in Butte County experienced devastation that would quickly grow to the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history to-date and ultimately would take the rank of the deadliest in the nation over the past century.

The town of Paradise, for many of us, holds memories of travel for youth sports or has served in its beauty as the home of loved ones and friends.

Immediately, our great community rallied, as we often do, we stood tall as support efforts were quickly deployed and continue to be organized by the amazing citizens of Lassen County.

To see the devastation first hand it is important to note that all help sent from our community, was and continues to be, not only greatly appreciated but also crucially needed. Every gesture of support from donated items to donated time assisted in providing hope to a community in their darkest hours.

As needs continued to grow in response to the Camp Fire, it became evident that medical response partners were limited and that there was a very specific need and place for Lassen Community College Nursing students to pitch in.

Through communication with the Incident Command Post we received our first assignment and deployed our students for their first shift on November 13th. As it had been five very long days since the fire had started we found ourselves along with thirteen nursing students, boxes of new books and games donated from Margie’s Book Nook, and a trunk full of bedpans, leaving before daylight to report to our posts in both Chico and Oroville.

For health care volunteers, processing was mandatory. Onsite, Caring Choices, the agency appointed to manage volunteers, immediately prioritized our students and processed them immediately, as health care volunteers were limited and in great need. At the volunteer processing center we were reminded just how giving our community is as we ran across a fellow volunteer from SEMSA, our local ambulance company, who had just completed her regular work tour and reported immediately for duty as a volunteer.

After volunteer processing, our group was assigned by Butte County Public Health to report to two separate shelters, one in Chico and one in Oroville.

Both shelters were operated by Red Cross as well as the County of Butte, both were full to capacity and many individuals had set up camp outside of the shelters.

The Oroville shelter’s parking lot and adjacent field housed nearly four-acres of vehicles, campers and tents. Many individuals needed to utilize the shelter services while attempting to maintain a principal form of independence and privacy.

During this first deployment our students worked in an unwavering fashion as they provided essential care to individuals with medical need. Our students at both shelters responded to makeshift isolation units where they provided total care to dependent patients while other students assisted in medical intakes and evaluations as a growing population became ill with the onset of a contagious intestinal virus.

As new medical needs arose, the need for care of long standing issues did not cease. Our students jumped feet first into every opportunity that presented itself, from offering to assist individual’s shower who had not had an opportunity since the evacuation to providing specific medical needs such as ostomy care, breathing treatments, wound care and so on. As our students returned for day two after a long night and early morning of travel, they found themselves past the first day uncertainty and quickly stepped in as a well-integrated care provider of an exclusive team made up of complete strangers from around the nation.

Our students were warmly welcomed by the Red Cross volunteers, the Butte County employees and the specialized Disaster Medical Assistance teams. One thing that we found quickly set our students apart from another nursing program that came to help was our student’s eagerness to jump in without hesitation and fill any need regardless of how undesirable the need was. Willingness to act is what sets the great apart from the mediocre and we value this work ethic in our program.

As we returned home on the second night of our experience our students discussed the reality of how our response was just a speck in the big picture, the consensus was that no matter how much we could do, it still wouldn’t be enough. This reality was and continues to be discouraging for many. It was recognized that as many needs were being met there were a couple items that no one was asking for but everyone would appreciate.

Of these, pillow cases, rose to the top of our list. Survivors were given Red Cross issued blankets and an individual pillow to lay upon their army style issued cots. It was known at this point that through the caring hands of Laura Roberts, the owner of our local quilt shop, Country Pines Quilts, had been working to create quilts for those who lost so much in the Camp Fire. As we returned home that night we were able to reach out to Country Pines Quilts and ask if they had anyone willing to make some pillow cases for the evacuees. The response was overwhelming.

For many years Laura and her fellow quilters have supported an organization called ‘Ryan’s Case for Smiles’ serving as a drop spot and an active participant in the Northern Nevada Chapter. The organization’s focus is to provide comfort and support through providing pillow cases and resources to children suffering from illness in local hospitals. As we take simple things in life for granted such as pillow cases it became painfully evident that when all is lost, the small things make a big difference.

The Paradise evacuees had been given pillows, but no pillow cases, they had laid their smoke-ridden hair on the same pillow for the past week in an unfamiliar place as they slept beside strangers.

Pillowcases were not high on the priority list and definitely were not showing up by the truck load. As soon as Laura Roberts was made aware of the unusual need she sent a call out to her fellow partners at ‘Ryan’s Case for Smiles’ and within days handmade pillowcases began to pour in from far and wide.

Beyond the immediate response from her local quilters, pillowcases were carefully sewn, washed, packaged and sent from places as close as Lassen and Plumas Counties and from individuals in the Northern Nevada Chapter to places as far as, Petaluma, Maine, Spokane, and Boston. Totaling nearly 500 handmade pillowcases in just over a weeks’ time.

Lassen Community College was blessed to have been the organization that got to hand deliver many of these pillow cases made with so much thought and care. Each case came with an insert linking families to resources for helping children who experience traumatic events cope in hard times. As we delivered the pillow cases to the individuals in the shelters on our third and fourth trip, a long-time Red Cross volunteer was brought to tears after asking if we had brought paper pillow cases and finding out each were hand made.

This large response from ‘Ryan’s Case for Smiles’ may appear to be a small token, but for the individuals in need they served as a token of hope, they put a long absent smile on children’s faces and continue to be used to not only cover their pillows but to stow family’s prized possessions, medications and remaining family pictures, in a time that all other senses of security has been taken away.

Over the holiday break students volunteered their own time and returned as individuals to assist in the shelters. Medical volunteers received multiple calls over the long holiday weekend as it became harder and harder to fill time slots in the medical response. After a discussion with Butte County Public Health over the holidays it was decided that our team of nursing students would return for another round of work in the shelters.

November 27th and November 28th, we were fortunate enough to return to a very different scene at the Oroville shelter, the list of missing individuals had shortened but was still present, the four acres of campers had dwindled to about two-acres and the previous outbreak had cleared making way for a new type of acute clinic response.

Half of our group responded to the Gridley shelter for those two days and found a shift in need as well. This shelter was receiving bus-loads of evacuees that would be transferred from other shelters as the county began to centralize operations. Each survivor would be processed through a medical screening, all performed in confidence by our students.

Another addition to the team was the newly deployed National Guard who our students worked with seamlessly and learned from along the way. FEMA was now present and developing long term plans with individuals and the Salvation Army continued their efforts of providing amazing, healthy and delicious meals to evacuees and volunteers alike.

The opportunities allowed by disaster situations for learning are vast, many individuals shy away from these uncomfortable circumstances however at Lassen Community College Nursing we find opportunities in the darkness. Our students past and present have proven that learning through these experiences has aided in providing advanced understanding of nursing care and humanity.

During our time helping we witnessed large companies such as Verizon and Sprint show up within a week to provide free cell phones and service to evacuees, later a group from Hong Kong deliver plush blankets, we saw Walmart and other large companies open their spaces to house individuals, as groups of all sorts stepped in to manage donations.

One of our very own nursing students brought her supplies from her past life as a hair stylist and provided nearly fifteen much needed cuts and shaves to residents of the shelter providing them a sense of hope and comfort. Again the reality that many of us can only imagine set in as she trimmed hair nearly three weeks after the fire had started that had been singed as residents ran on foot from their homes escaping the blaze. We look forward as our community continues to support Paradise in their long term recovery and want to thank all survivors for allowing us to assist in a great time of need.

As we settle in to celebrate the upcoming holiday season in our warm homes with our families close at hand, please keep the survivors of the Camp Fire close in mind. Set them a place at your dinner table, support the continuous efforts locally and regionally and remember that as the immediate needs may have been met there will be continuous needs over the next few decades as the residents of Paradise walk down the dusty road of repopulation and recovery.

Reach out and support your local responders locally and regionally, Fire, EMS, Law Enforcement, Medical personnel, and Emergency Managers, as they continue to sacrifice selflessly to aid in the long term recovery efforts both in Butte County and in support of those who now call Lassen County home.

Lassen Community College Nursing would like to thank David Teeter and Margie’s Book Nook for their generous donation of new books and games that were received so genuinely by the evacuees.

Laura Roberts, Country Pines Quilt Shop, and Ryan’s Case for Smiles, you have so graciously blessed so many people that you will never have the opportunity of meeting and we thank you so deeply for letting us be the delivery method for your hard working and thoughtful efforts.

Lastly, Lassen Community College Nursing Students both past and present we aspire to lead you down a path in your nursing education that we can be proud of. Moments of response and giving without question have proven to us that you are all not only great students and nurses but that you are kind, compassionate, humble people who we would be proud to have care for our loved ones.

Compassion and humility stem from moments that we fear the most, our student have been graced with opportunities to elevate these traits in themselves through their service and for that we are grateful.

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