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Kaiser Permanente in Santa Rosa reopens hospital, 17 days after fires forced closure

Crista Gatti and Israel Vigil embrace in an emergency room filled with Kaiser Medical Center nurses as the hospital opens Wednesday Oct. 25, 2017, since the Tubbs fire ravaged Santa Rosa and Kaiser was forced to evacuate. Gatti lost her home in Coffey Park, and Denise Parsons, bottom, lost her rental house in the same area. (Kent Porter / Press Democrat) 2017

MARTIN ESPINOZA,

Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center reopened Wednesday afternoon, resuming its emergency and inpatient services more than two weeks after the unprecedented Tubbs fire forced its evacuation and closure.

In the wee hours of Oct. 9, the fires that devastated large portions of Santa Rosa’s residential and commercial property, particularly the adjacent Journey’s End Mobile Home Park, raced toward the hospital, inundating Kaiser’s medical/surgical and emergency units with smoke. The hospital’s patients were transferred to other Kaiser facilities in other counties, as well as community hospitals in Sonoma County.

On Wednesday, emergency staffers expressed relief and excitement that they had their hospital back. The facility on Bicentennial Way officially started taking patients at 3 p.m., following a celebration for Kaiser medical and administration staff that included a bagpipe musician playing “Amazing Grace.”

Following the ceremony, emergency staff quickly started caring for a handful of patients who started showing up.

“We learned that we can depend on each other in a way that we didn’t know before, and because of that we’ll be better for the experience,” said Dr. Josh Weil, an emergency medical physician.

Weil said the resolve and support demonstrated by medical staff following the fire is what “I choose to remember,” and not the devastation caused by the fire. Weil, assistant physician-in-chief for Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa, lost his home in the Larkfield- Wikiup area.

Weil said he arrived for a late shift on Oct. 8 at about 10:45 p.m., aware that there were fires in the region but never imagining what would come. By 1 a.m. he called his wife, telling her he was deeply concerned. When he called her again a short time later, his wife, daughter and their two dogs were already driving through flames and wind-strewn embers to evacuate.

But the mood Wednesday was upbeat in the emergency department, with staffers hugging each other and telling stories of near escapes, new lodgings and finding porcelain and pottery items among the ashes of their homes. They described finding comfort by returning to work in a familiar setting.

“It gives some return to normalcy,” Weil said. “So many people lost their homes or were evacuated or had their lives terribly disrupted.”

Kaiser reopened its two adjacent medical office buildings on Oct. 16.

More than 200 Kaiser nurses, doctors and other staff lost homes in the firestorm, said Judy Coffey, senior vice president and area manager of Kaiser facilities in Marin and Sonoma counties. Coffey was also among those who lost their homes.

“Our commitment to the health and safety of our patients and staff is our highest priority,” Coffey said in a statement.

The fire did not damage the hospital and emergency department, but because of smoke damage and the fire’s proximity to the building, the facility had to undergo extensive cleaning, restocking and evaluation. State inspectors completed their evaluation and gave the green light to reopen at about noon Wednesday, Weil said.

When the emergency department opened at 3 p.m., it immediately had five patients in emergency bays, he said. The department logs an average of about 160 visits a day and about 65,000 visits a year.

Denise Parsons, an emergency department nurse who lost her rental home in the fire, said she was thankful to be back at work.

“It feels good,” Parsons said. “It just feels like yes, this is family.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @renofish.