Nurse turned Petaluma fairgrounds into medical clinic during Sonoma County fires

Registered nurse Michelle Patino had no idea that she’d be supervising a mini-hospital when she answered a call for pillows and blankets at the Sonoma-Marin Fairgrounds on Oct. 9. Patino, a 43-year-old Petaluma resident, had suited up for her job that morning, but the emergency department at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center where she works had closed because of the Tubbs fire. She hurried the three blocks to the Beverly C. Wilson Hall at the fairgrounds to donate bedding. She ended up staying for the better part of 12 days.

“The hall wasn’t a designated evacuation center,” she said, “but it had been opened to evacuees who’d showed up with nowhere else to go. Some needed medical attention. A lot of them had left home without their medications or prescriptions. When I got there, I saw there were no supplies except a broken glucometer, a box of gloves from my truck, some over-the-counter medications and half a bottle of Pepto-Bismol,” she recalled. “I immediately knew that we needed to get organized.”

Patino stepped up to oversee a 30-bed medical clinic. She used the Nextdoor app to ask for supplies and help. Soon medications and equipment began pouring in, and volunteers came from all over the Bay Area to serve as staff. “There were probably 12 to 14 medical professionals here at all times,” she said. “Doctors, nurses and emergency medical technicians.”

The team made a list of medications that people with chronic conditions couldn’t live without, and the local pharmacy association then donated those. At that point the clinic could help people manage blood sugar, respiratory distress, eye irritation, mental health and other medical issues. “Our goal was to keep the pressure off of Petaluma Valley Hospital by triaging and taking care of minor problems down here.” The staff addressed several major issues, too, including preventing one heart attack, reviving one cardiac arrest victim and managing a seizure patient.

Cindy White, also a Kaiser emergency room nurse, had been evacuated from her Santa Rosa home with her two cats because of the Tubbs fire. Patino and her girlfriend gave White and her pets a place to stay for the nine days her home was closed to access. Meanwhile, White joined the clinic staff.

“Michelle had taken FEMA Incident Command training,” White said, “so she knew how to set up and command a disaster team. That, plus her years of working as a charge nurse, and her experience as an athletic coach, gave her the perfect storm of training. She has a very positive way of directing people. She can talk to them so they feel compelled to help.”

The shelter could only take 200 people, including the 30 beds in the medical area, but when it was full, more people showed up. “The shelters were packed up in Santa Rosa,” White said, “so people drove down here looking for space. When they showed up, Michelle said, ‘We’re not turning these people away.’ Many were frail and elderly, and disoriented from losing pets and friends. We set up a special observation area so we could attend their special needs, and so they didn’t have to keep driving down the road looking for another center.”

Patino pointed out that support for the clinic came from regular people in the community.

“Everything we had in the clinic, from defibrillators to a laptop computer to oxygen tanks, were donated by community members and fire departments from Petaluma to San Francisco. People bought them and brought them in. I’d ask for something on social media, and I had it in an hour,” she said. “I’ve only lived in this community for about a year and a half, and I’ve never seen anything like it.”

Patino didn’t suffer any material or financial losses, “just hours of sleep.” She put in 12- to 16-hour shifts for 12 days. Still she says she wouldn’t do anything differently, “but I know how to do it better now. And I’m grateful for all the friends I made here in Petaluma because of this. We’re bonded now, and we’ll stay friends for life.”

From Patino’s example, White learned that when disaster strikes, you have to step up. “I know now not to sit around hoping everyone’s OK.”

When the Office of Emergency Services showed up on day four of the clinic’s operation and asked Michelle which organization she was with, she said that she was “just an everyday person.”

“I’m here,” Patino had said, “because I live three blocks away.”

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