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Nursing at the Petaluma Fairgrounds

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.”