Nursing at the Petaluma Fairgrounds

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Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Emergency Department nurse Michelle Patino, RN, volunteered around the clock at a makeshift medical center for North Bay fire evacuees.

After the North Bay fires hit, Michelle Patino, RN, thought she was going to drop off some blankets and pillows for the evacuees at the Petaluma Fairgrounds. Then she’d head to her afternoon shift at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa’s Emergency Department.

She didn’t know that the fires would threaten her hospital enough to cause its evacuation and temporary closure.

And she certainly didn’t expect that she would be spending the next 12 days volunteering.

Blankets and Pillows

In the early hours of Oct. 9, Patino and girlfriend Mica Pangborn, an accountant, monitored the news as the fires jumped neighborhoods and the 101 freeway, devouring businesses and homes.

Patino noticed on the NextDoor app that evacuees were flooding the nearby fairgrounds, just a few blocks away. There was a desperate call for bedding.

Patino and Mica gathered everything they could spare and hurried there.

By then it was early afternoon. Thick smoke hung in the air and the freeways were jammed. Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa had been closed. The couple agreed: They couldn’t get to work, so they would help their community.

Elderly and in Distress

The fairgrounds was already packed with people, some distraught, many in nightclothes.

Patino had on hospital scrubs — something of a beacon to the displaced people who needed help.

“I ran out to my truck and got a box of gloves and checked the glucose level of one elderly woman,” she said. “It was really high and she didn’t have any of her medications. In fact, no one did since people had evacuated literally within minutes. There were a lot of elderly people there.”

That was the beginning of turning the little Beverly C. Wilson Building into a makeshift clinic.

Patino stayed that whole afternoon, talking to each person and recording health histories. She met a woman who had had open-heart surgery a week prior and was having chest pain. A man who had a seizure disorder didn’t have his medication.

She worked into the evening. And then came back the next day. And the next. And the next.

A Facebook Post

Patino is quick to say that she is not a hero and that she did not work alone.

Clinicians from many other hospitals helped turn the building into an exemplary emergency medical clinic that caught the eye of disaster relief organizations.

Her Kaiser Permanente colleagues came out in full force, too, such as Emergency Department physician Michael Gerstein, MD, and ICU unit clerk Aminah Coleman.

“I posted on Facebook that I was at the fairgrounds and needed help. People I’ve only worked with a few months showed up at 7 at night, at 3 in the morning. It was amazing.” Patino said.

One of her early steps was to create the definitive observation unit, or DOU, within the small homemade clinic. There, clinicians could keep an eye on people with higher health risks.

Pampers and Pepto-Bismol

“We started out with half a bottle of Pepto-Bismol, some Pampers, a box of over-the-counter medications, my gloves, a broken glucometer, and a makeshift sharps container,” Patino said. “But over time, we made a list of the 20 most essential medications. One of the doctors went to a local pharmacists’ association, which donated 30 pills of each so we could dispense regularly to evacuees.”

Patino saw a lot over the approximately 140 hours she logged volunteering.

That Tuesday, the fairgrounds CEO opened the gates to all fire evacuees, including people in their 90s who had driven themselves from an assisted living facility to safety. There were 3 cardiac arrests in the nearby meadow. Daily, 6 paramedics walked the fairground to help people camping in tents and RVs, too. Patino rejoiced in “the camaraderie and community of Sonoma County.”

She also witnessed something new in herself — a penchant for organizing in a disaster zone.

“I couldn’t just sit at home and do nothing. I had to do something. And others felt the same way. People from different hospitals came together with a common goal — to help.”

Discussion10 Comments

  1. Hello,
    Thank you for posting this article about Michelle’s extremely generous, kind, hard work for fire evacuees at the Petaluma Fairgrounds.
    I was one of the very fortunate evacuees to receive incredible care there, from Michelle and her impromptu, generous team of volunteers.
    Another Santa Rosa Kaiser employee, Aminah Coleman, logged incredibly long hours, organizing and enduring the whole operation ran smoothly. Michelle and Aminah ran that evacuation unit with humor, compassion, and always had smiles on their faces, even after working 12 – 16 hour shifts. I have no idea how they did it. Kaiser should seriously consider both of them for organizing disaster relief operations, and training other Kaiser staff in how to do so. They both deserve recognition and greater opportunities with Kaiser for their proven ability to put together a medical clinic with hundred of medical volunteers – on the fly.
    Thank you, Michelle and Aminah, and to all who volunteered at the Petaluma evacuation center and elsewhere after the fires. Michelle and Aminah’s humble dedication to helping others, and your indomitable spirits, I will remember for a lifetime, and have inspired me to do more in my own volunteering.

  2. Sheryl D Negrin, LCSW

    Thank you to all who volunteered and worked long hours tending to those who evacuated. I hope you’re all taking good care of yourselves and resting and restoring after this traumatic incident. All of our KP family will need support in the coming weeks, months and years. Remember that EAP can be used to support you (employees, physicians, and covered dependents).

  3. I showed up to volunteer at the makeshift medical center at the Petaluma Fairgrounds the day after the fire and that is when I met Michelle for the first time. There were a lot of eager volunteers but not a lot of structure at the outset. Michelle turned out to be the guardian angel of many evacuees over the ensuing days. Her leadership, care, compassion, and good humor were much appreciated. She showed up day after long day and helped lead an incredible group of medical personnel from all over the Bay Area. Kudos to Michelle and the many doctors, nurses, PAs, NPs, EMTs, CNAs, and students who kept the Petaluma Fairgrounds medical center running smoothly when people needed it most.

  4. Ann Bruner-Welch, PA-C

    Way more to go. You were not alone. I was doing the same at Cook Middle School, until Kaiser reopened, and I understand there were several at Sonoma County Fair Grounds. Intense, lots of elderly, and lots of prescription refills and nebulizer treatments. Grateful for my Kaiser phone, so I could access med records, and medication lists for people who had no idea what they normally take. Was even able to order a nebulizer machine for someone who lost theirs in the fire, and had it delivered at the shelter. All the community docs helping me there were commenting on what a great system Kaiser has. Have to say, it did take a bit to convince the Apria driver to delivere it to the shelter! Was thrilled, when it arrived, to be able to deliver it personally to our Kaiser member there.

    • Lynn Mundell

      Ann, thank you so much for representing Kaiser Permanente so well. Thank you also for sharing your story. We’ll have an InsideKP NCAL page soon for you and other employees and physicians to share your North Bay fire stories and let us all know how you are doing moving forward. Thank you, again, so much.

  5. You’re truly an amazing angel to your community, you are more than a Hero for what you’ve done especially to those elderly…you are blessed w/ huge heart. We are so proud of you, keep it up!

  6. Michelle Patino may not consider herself a hero, but she most definitely is, along with her partner and all her KP colleagues. What an inspiring story! I’m sure those evacuees with serious medical conditions were VERY grateful to receive medical attention and essential meds.

  7. That article on Michelle is so touching. Michelle Patino may not refer to herself as a hero(most people who are don”t) but I really appreciate the wok that she did….\

    Thank you,
    Judy Pollack
    Oakland
    Buy to Pay, Kaiser

  8. Hello – I was wondering if my volunteer work could be featured. I spent one week volunteering in Houston Post Harvey for Best Friends and Houston Pets Alive. In addition, I raised funds and much needed animal items for the Tubbs fires and the surrounding area. I have fostered for several years as well. Would be nice to more stories about animal welfare who are often forgotten about in times of tragedy. Thank you for all the wonderful stories that have been featured. I look forward to reading them. Thank you very much and have a great day, Daniela

    • Lynn Mundell

      Hi, Daniela. Yes, we will be in touch after the holiday to hear more. Thank you so much for your incredible work to help animals after the disaster!

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