Santa Rosa Junior College nursing students step up amid ‘urgent need’ of Kincade fire

As the Kincade fire grew, more than 80 SRJC nursing students responded to the call for help, signing up to work around the clock in 8- and 12-hour shifts for the next eight days.|

All the familiar cues came rushing back last month: The call in the middle of the night. The smell of smoke and bright flames in the distance. The race to the emergency shelter to aid evacuees.

“It felt like we were reliving the 2017 fires all over again,” said American Red Cross volunteer nurse Peggy Goebel.

But unlike in the Tubbs and Nuns fires, this time during the Kincade fire she found herself understaffed and outmanned. After working Friday night, Oct. 25, at the Healdsburg Community Center shelter, Goebel headed to Santa Rosa to open a new shelter at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds.

On the afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 26, standing in the Veterans Memorial Building as one of only three nurses tasked with aiding at least 1,000 evacuees, her first thought was, “Holy moly, we need more help and we need it now.”

Many seeking refuge were frail, elderly people evacuated from senior care homes around Sonoma County. There were patients that required around-the-clock help with cardiac and respiratory issues, diabetes, hypertension, eating disorders, Alzheimer’s and dementia. Many had wheelchairs and walkers. Three patients were blind. Some were in hospice care. Several others were enrolled in a methadone program, which required hailing Uber rides to take them to a clinic.

To make matters worse, “that first day, we didn’t even get enough beds to accommodate everyone until almost midnight,” Goebel said. The next day, the number grew to 1,500 evacuees.

“In 2017, we had less people, with around 1,000 at the fairgrounds, but much more help,” she said. “This time we had more people to look after and much less help in the beginning because everyone was evacuated.”

As a teacher in the Santa Rosa Junior College nursing program for the past 43 years, Goebel turned to the next generation: “I sent out an SOS to the students asking for help.”

Like a scene out of a Clara Barton biopic, young nurses in training came running. By final count more than 80 SRJC nursing students responded to a posting on the college’s internal website, signing up to work around the clock in 8- and 12-hour shifts for the next eight days.

Second-year student Margaret Sunheang was one of them. She had already evacuated and was staying with her in-laws. “I’m just sitting around while school is closed and I’m thinking, ‘What can I do to help?’” she said.

Once she got to the fairgrounds, the mission was exactly what she’d trained for. “It was basic, direct human contact and getting down to the core of, ‘What can I do for you? What do you need?’?” said Sunheang, who also volunteered during the 2017 fires at Elsie Allen High School. “Some people just needed to talk. They were stressed. Others needed access to their meds and if we could provide them, there was a system for that.”

Her desire to volunteer, it turns out, it is a common reaction among nurses and doctors sitting at home watching catastrophe unfold in real time.

“The reason I got involved with the Red Cross was during Hurricane Katrina,” said Dr. Joe Clendenin, a retired family physician who worked with Goebel and Sunheang, volunteering as a Red Cross doctor at the fairgrounds during the Kincade fire. “I found myself sitting at home watching TV wondering, why am I sitting at home watching TV?”

Likewise, “It was 9/11 that got me involved,” remembers Cindy Jones, Red Cross Disaster Health Services lead for Sonoma and Napa counties, who worked with Goebel to coordinate shelter care during the Kincade fire. “I was sitting there going, I can’t believe this is happening, how can I help?”

As her students began arriving at the fairgrounds, “I was just so incredibly relieved,” Goebel said. “Having taught there for so many years, I knew what they could do and I knew I could count on them.”

Thanks to an exception in the Red Cross rulebook, nursing students are allowed to help with patients during urgent disasters under the supervision of a registered nurse.

“This was definitely an urgent need,” Goebel said.

After a brief orientation, Goebel organized students in teams of two and three and they spread out across the Vets Building, Grace Pavilion and Finley Hall in triage units.

“They were doing what we call ‘cot-to-cot,’ going down the rows, introducing themselves, asking, ‘Have you eaten? Here’s water.’ If they have a cardiac problem, listen to the heart, look at the ankles. If there’s a breathing problem, listen to the lungs. All while writing down specific needs and bringing them back to us. They’re doing this in teams, that way they’re not out there in the abyss by themselves.”

Making the most of on-the-job training, the student nurses did everything: Checking vital signs, feeding, ambulation, toileting, dressing care and blood glucose work. A woman came in who was 32 weeks pregnant and they quickly assessed her and shuttled her to the labor and delivery unit at a nearby hospital. Overall, around 20 people were sent to hospitals from the Santa Rosa shelter.

When symptoms of diarrhea and vomiting broke out, both tell-tale signs of the norovirus (although it was never fully diagnosed), student nurses helped set up an isolation room to treat those patients away from the general population and prevent a wider outbreak.

But aside from addressing urgent needs, more than anything the students listened and learned.

“They made me so proud as a nurse, as a teacher, as a Red Cross volunteer,” Goebel said. “I had volunteers from all four levels of the program, teaching each other different techniques. I had one young student assigned to isolation and an older student came to me and said, ‘I’m not leaving that young student in charge of isolation. She hasn’t had enough experience.’ And I thought, ‘Way to go, that’s what this is all about.’ And so we made adjustments.”

Arriving at just the right time, the student nurses were “invaluable,” Dr. Clendenin said. “It renews your faith in humanity, that they’re willing to step up to the plate and take the pitch and help when we need it the most.”

Faced with a dire shortage of nurses as a Red Cross coordinator, Jones sees the students as the humble heroes this time around: “They did the most menial jobs, with the most willing hands and a loving spirit.”

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