Russian River Health Center scrambles to maintain services after arson fire

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With their 30-year-old community clinic destroyed by an arsonist, medical staff at the Russian River Health Center in Guerneville are scrambling to maintain services to the 3,500 patients who relied on the charred clinic.

Staff members have set up a mobile medical trailer across the street from the fire-gutted clinic to serve patients who cannot drive or find transportation to Sebastopol, where they have temporarily claimed space in two sister clinics.

Eventually, West County Health Centers wants to rebuild the Third Street clinic, its flagship facility. But for now, it is sending patients to Sebastopol and treating patients in Guerneville inside a cramped mobile unit with two exam rooms, just enough to accommodate the patients for a single physician.

“We’re definitely feeling the fatigue of it,” said Jerry Elliott, a physician assistant who has worked at the Guerneville clinic for five years.

“We’re trying to juggle all the things that need to be done,” Elliott said earlier this week, standing across the street from the burned structure. “You have to triage what needs to be done today and what can be left for later.”

A suspected arson fire tore through the clinic in the early hours of Dec. 26. Fire officials believe the fire started in a utility closet, got into an elevator shaft and spread throughout the building through the attic.

The loss of the clinic is a devastating blow for many Russian River residents who received their primary care at the facility, which was built in the mid-1980s.

Inside the facility were eight medical exam rooms, including one for pediatrics, a Quest Diagnostics lab station and five mental health counseling rooms. It also included physicians’ offices, a group meeting room, a staff room, a front office, a large patient waiting room and data servers.

Since the fire, medical and administrative staff for the West County Health Centers have been hammering out a plan to bring medical services back to the river community.

“We do want people to know that their care will not be interrupted,” said Mary Szecsey, executive director of West County Health Centers, the parent organization that operated the Russian River Health Center.

Aside from Guerneville, West County Health Centers operates medical clinics in several communities, including Occidental, Forestville and Sebastopol. It has set aside space in two of its Sebastopol clinics to treat Guerneville-area patients. Some transportation to the Sebastopol clinics is being provided by West County Community Services.

Szecsey said she and others will begin working this week on a short-term plan “to get everyone back here to Guerneville.” That plan likely will involve the use of a larger modular-type structure located somewhere in Guerneville.

“Long-term, the plan is to rebuild the clinic,” Szecsey said.

That likely will require significant funds coming from such federal agencies as the U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration, as well as private donations and a fundraising campaign, Szecsey said. The cost of rebuilding, she said, will be much more than the original $415,000 price tag to build the now-destroyed clinic.

The property, which is on the northwest corner of Church and Third streets, is owned by West County Health Centers. Over the years, the health care group has made a number of improvements to the site, including adding an elevator in 2002.

On Monday, Dr. Jared Garrison-Jakel visited the burned clinic to retrieve some of his personal belongings. Carrying two cardboard boxes, Garrison-Jakel walked through waterlogged debris, carefully avoiding charred office furniture and sections of collapsed ceiling. Rain fell through gaping holes and missing segments of the roof.

“The (pediatrics) room was always way too dark,” Garrison-Jakel joked as he walked through the ravaged room, whose ceiling and roof was almost completely gone.

The young physician apologized for his humor; it was evident that he and other staff have been hit hard by the loss of their clinic, where they treated thousands of patients of all ages.

Clinic staff have been reaching out to many of their patients, informing them that most of the clinic’s staff have been relocated to the Gravenstein Community Health Center in Sebastopol at 652 Petaluma Ave., Suite H. The Guerneville clinic’s patients also will be seen at the Sebastopol Community Health Center at 6800 Palm Ave., Suite C.

Szecsey said Russian River Health Center patients are asked to call the clinic’s telephone service for appointment information, at 869-2849.

Urgent cases could be treated in Guerneville, she said. The mobile clinic, donated for temporary use by St. Joseph Health, is located in the parking lot of the West County Health Center’s dental clinic at 16312 Third St. in Guerneville.

Patients who need to be transported to the Sebastopol clinics for their scheduled appointments or such things as diagnostic testing, lab tests, specialty services and radiology should call 869-2849.

West County Health Centers is accepting donations from those who want to help in the effort to bring services back to Guerneville and rebuild. To learn more about how to help, visit wchealth.org/help/donations, or mail checks to: Russian River Health Center, c/o West County Health Centers, P.O. Box 1449, Guerneville 95446.

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

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