It’s my day off, and I have just finished a yoga class and walked across the street to get a coffee. The barista is making small talk, but what he says next catches my attention, “Does it still smell like smoke outside? There’s a massive fire in Napa..” I get a terrible feeling in the pit of my stomach. I am a Burn ICU nurse and my immediate thought is–mass casualties. Hours later I will get a text from work asking for additional nurses to come in, “Several new burns from Napa fires, SITUATION CRITICAL!” There are only two burn centers in Northern California, we are already functioning at capacity, and I wonder how we will manage.
In the upcoming days, when I go into work I am surprised to learn that we have only a few new critical burns on the unit. As the death toll reported in the news continues to climb, it seems as though most people either got out or didn’t make it, while hundreds remain missing. Those in between are my patients, and their fight for survival, and rebuilding their lives has just begun.
My heart breaks, as I know what is in store for these people. The healing process for burn patients is long and grueling. They often endure months in the ICU—they will be on ventilators, go through multiple surgeries for grafting, twice a day dressing changes, chronic pain, and battling infections. And even after they make it through they physical trauma, they will still have to face the emotional trauma. My job is to help people get through the most vulnerable time in their lives, both physically and emotionally. But the loss, and the grief, and the pain is so layered upon layered, it is almost unfathomable. My patients have lost their homes. Some of them have lost family members, friends, and neighbors. Some have lost their mobility. Some may lose their lives. They have lost life as they know it, and will be forever changed. Their medical team will fight to get them through the infections, and the surgeries and eventually through their rehabilitation. Throughout the months we will listen to your family’s stories, we will share in your grief, we will shed tears, we will carry you with us, and we will go home and hug our own families and count our blessings.
As nurses, we are used to tragedy, we deal with it everyday, but this disaster hit home in a different way. We all know someone who has friends/family who has had to evacuate. Although I live roughly 50 miles from the fires, there has been a Red Alert for the hazardous air quality. It smells like a campfire when I walk outside my front door, and although I am a young healthy woman, I could still feel the tightness in my chest from the smoke in the air. I watch my neighbors walking around with N95 masks on. I think about the vulnerable population—the elderly, the young, those with asthma, and those with chronic heart and lung disease and the risks for them are serious. There are those who will never fully recover from the devastation of these fires. Communities will have to rebuild but will always have scars. My patients will have to rebuild their lives. Rehabilitate their bodies. Adapt to a new body image and new physical limitations. They will have to grieve. They will have to work through their PTSD.
It has been a strange year, one natural disaster after another. But when it happens in your own back yard, and you are one of the responders, you cannot help but feel the fragility of the world around you.
350 note ~ When climate disaster strikes people are impacted differently. Undocumented immigrants have more layers and complications of needs. If you wish to contribute funds to the fire-impacted we recommend the UndocuFund. The UndocuFund will provide direct funding to undocumented immigrants and their families to help with expenses incurred directly as a result of the fires. undocufund.org Thank you.