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Nurses Save Lives in Southern California Wildfires

As wildfires raged through the Los Angeles foothills, a hospice nurse dashed to save elderly patients from a doomed mobile home park, RNs used flashlights to rescue fragile infants when a hospital lost power, and nurse specialists dispensed hotline advise on the health dangers of acrid, smoky air.

Nurses at Olive View-UCLA Medical Center had to work with flashlights and use hand-pumped ventilators to keep neonatal ICU infants alive when the rampaging Sayre fire descended on the 337-bed hospital, knocking out power shortly after midnight Nov. 15.

While firefighters fought back flames and shut down the building’s ventilator system to seal out ash and soot, nurses helped move 18 fragile infants to safety, including two sets of twins and a set of triplets. RNs also scurried to give early discharges to some of their 200 patients as the fire danger emerged.

Johnnie Holmes, RN, an ED charge nurse, says staffers flashed their badges at Highway Patrol blockades to make the hazardous drive to the hospital. The roads were covered with soot and debris from fires that whipped through 12,000 acres, destroying a mobile home park and damaging more than 100 other houses.

“There was nowhere to go but forward as heat from the fire could be felt through car windows and choking smoke hazed car interiors,” Holmes says. “Stopping was not an option.” Two nurses showed up at the hospital after being forced to leave their homes. “I am astounded by and enormously proud of my staff,” Holmes adds.

Kory Ramelli, RN, charge nurse in the NICU, says respiratory therapists and clerical staff pitched in, using flashlights and self-pumped ventilators while carrying “hand-bagged” infants down a flight of stairs to where they could be safely transported by ambulance to other facilities.

“Without the heroic efforts, many of our babies would not have survived,” she says.

Nurse Helps Patients Escape Homes

Firefighters battle the Sayre fire as it engulfs a mobile home at Oakridge Mobile Home Park, which ended up being destroyed.

A few miles away, hospice nurse Michele Fauquier drove to Oakridge Mobile Home Park just in time to help her elderly patients escape a conflagration that turned the enclave into cinders. She assisted a patient with multiple sclerosis and her immobile 80-year-old mother to reach their car and drive away.

Fauquier next went to the dwelling of three ailing clients with poor hearing, ignoring warnings from police, who said everyone had gone. She pounded on the door until it finally opened and the three residents appeared, wearing pajamas and looking confused. Fauquier says they grabbed some belongings and a pet bird, leaving in the nick of time.

Hotline Sees Burst of Activity

Meanwhile, the American Lung Association’s hotline had a burst of activity from fire areas, mostly by residents with respiratory ailments trying to cope with the stinging smoke.

“We did get a spike in calls from Southern California, a lot dealing with the effect of smoke on asthmatic conditions,” says Michael Mark, RN, a respiratory therapist and vice president of Springfield, Ill.-based Healthline Services, a call center and counseling hub for the ALA.

Mark says the topography of the Los Angeles basin creates inversions where layers of smog form on top of forest fires. “It’s like putting a lid on a pot,” he adds. “If people have asthmatic conditions triggered by smoke, the inflammatory response can be quite profound and even cause some deaths.” Those at risk were advised to take extra precautions and leave the danger area if possible.

Jill Furilla, RN, vice president of the Los Angeles Fire Commission, says investigations into the failure of back-up generators at Olive View-UCLA are underway. The facility’s reserve power plant is supposed to supply reliable energy for several days in case there’s a disaster such as the Sylmar earthquake, which destroyed the original hospital in 1971.

Furilla says the commission will look at all the Sayre fire issues, including flammable foliage near the hospital, the need for evacuation routes, a meltdown of fire lines, cleanup activities, and safety concerns in the construction of mobile homes.

By | 2020-04-15T15:45:21-04:00 December 8th, 2008|Categories: Regional, West|0 Comments

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