Santa Rosa medical provider turns to converted shipping containers for exam rooms
Michael Russo sat in a space called F-1 at the new Fiesta Clinic in Santa Rosa, waiting for Dr. Ele Lozares-Lewis to administer a set of injections that would help relieve his muscle spasms and back pain — the lasting side effects of cancer treatment he received years ago.
Usually, Russo would receive his injections in an exam room at the Vista Family Health Center on Round Barn Circle. But that facility, with 56 exam rooms that catered to 24,000 patients annually, was destroyed in the Tubbs fire in October.
Russo himself lost his home on Willow Green Place, off Old Redwood Highway just south of Mark West Springs Road.
On Thursday, he was treated in a white shipping container with the words, “Clinic in a Can,” painted on the outside. The container is one of seven disaster response clinics recently purchased by Santa Rosa Community Health to help mitigate the loss of its largest medical facility.
“The cans are pretty darn cool, and it’s pretty nice being outside,” said Dr. Lozares-Lewis. “To be able to continue to see our patients is amazing.”
From inside, the “cans” are equipped like any other medical exam room, with medical office cabinets, medical supplies, an exam table with a blue cushion, a red biohazard container, a sink, a weight scale and a computer station for medical providers. The rooms are slightly on the narrow side, but they are fully heated and can be powered by solar energy.
The pre-equipped clinics were brought two weeks ago from Wichita, Kansas, headquarters of Clinic in a Can, a business that outfits the shipping containers for use in parts of the world affected by natural disasters or international crises.
Located in a parking lot next to Santa Rosa Community Health’s dental clinic on North Dutton Avenue, the new medical rooms were purchased with grants from the California Endowment and the North Bay Fire Relief. Each can handle about 20 to 25 patients a day, giving SRCH the ability to see up to 125 patients who would have been treated at Vista.
The Round Barn Circle health center was opened in 2010 with the goal of treating 10,000 patients annually. Before fire destroyed the facility, it logged almost half of SRHC’s 50,000 annual patients. Elisabeth Chicoine, director of quality for SRCH, said the new clinics are one of several steps taken to create more exam space after the fires.
Others include the expansion of hours and services at other health center campuses, including the Elsie Allen Health Center, the pediatric clinic on Stony Point Road and the Lombardi Court clinic. Behind the Lombardi site, mobile clinics equipped with six total exam rooms are also being used, Chicoine said.
And a new health center being built at 1300 N. Dutton Ave., not far from the dental clinic and new clinics in a can, will add 26 exam rooms.
“We’re making up for it by finding ways to see our patients in alternative settings,” Chicoine said.
Naomi Fuchs, CEO of SRCH said the loss of Vista has been a huge blow for the county’s largest system of federally qualified health centers, which includes nine campuses.
Though the Vista’s exterior structure was left standing, its roof was destroyed and many of the second-floor exam rooms were destroyed. The rest of the building was severely damaged by fire sprinklers and smoke.
“It’s a whole gut and remodel. We’re starting from scratch,” she said, adding that converting the office space into a medical complex cost about $9 million a decade ago, when construction costs were much lower because of the economic downturn.
She estimates it will cost about $15 million to rebuild Vista, an effort that will take more than a year to complete. Fuchs said insurance may not cover the entire cost of rebuilding Vista.
The project is made even more difficult because SRCH is still trying to wrap up its $8.5 million capital campaign for the construction of its new Dutton Avenue facility.
“We really would like to close that campaign, we still have $2 million to go,” Fuchs said.
For now, the disaster clinics are a novel way of creating more office space, she said.
Russo said he sometimes walked to Vista from his home on Willow Green Place. He now has to drive from Petaluma where he and his husband moved after being unable to find an affordable place in Santa Rosa.
“It’s a shame that I’m so far away from everything,” he said. “But I just didn’t want to give up my doctor.”
You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707-521-5213 or martin.espinoza @pressdemocrat.com.