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What Happened After My Stepbrother Was Burned in the Santa Rosa Fire

How a little-known healthcare system sprang into action to save a family member’s life.

Jim Conley suffered burns over 18 percent of his body fighting flames at his Santa Rosa apartment.

This is one of many stories about the North Bay fires published in the December issue of San Francisco. To read the rest, click here.

Charlene Sheridan pulled her car into the entrance of the Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital emergency room at 3:48 a.m. on Monday, October 9. Next to her sat Jim Conley, her neighbor (and my stepbrother). Jim was almost completely black—everything that hadn’t been lost was covered in soot from the fire that had ravaged their apartment complex on Hopper Avenue just a short time earlier. He’d been burned trying to fight flames with a garden hose.

Within minutes, Jim was inside the emergency room, where a trauma surgeon and an emergency department doctor examined the burns that covered his limbs. Moments after they hooked him up to an IV and pumped him full of painkillers, and just before they inserted a breathing tube, an ER nurse asked Jim for his family members’ contact information. Jim was in shock and couldn’t remember—kicking off an agonizing 24 hours for my siblings and me, in which we frantically called shelters and police agencies across the county in search of him. But in the meantime, a complex regional and multi state system for treating burn victims had already kicked into high gear. That system would ultimately save his life.

The first hours after someone is burned are critical. Airways close up and dehydration and shock can set in, which can bring on heart issues, especially for older patients like Jim, who is 62. Ever since the disastrous 1942 Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston killed 492 people and burned hundreds of others, doctors and specialists have recognized the importance of stand-alone burn units that can offer patients instant and intensive 24-7 care. There are now about 1,900 ICU burn unit beds in the United States, including 46 in Northern California.

But getting burn victims to burn unit beds in the middle of a natural disaster—when roads are closed or gridlocked, communication channels are swamped, and rescue personnel are focused on saving lives—can be an enormous challenge. For the 19 people who were seriously burned by the whipping flames, the system of transportation between emergency rooms and specialized burn units around the state would be seriously tested.

The Tubbs fire stretched from Calistoga to Santa Rosa; Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital was at ground zero. By 2:30 a.m. on October 9, the lead nurse in the hospital’s emergency room had activated the department’s mass notification system, which sends text messages requesting that extra doctors and nurses come into work. It was the first time in emergency room nurse manager Shelia Draper’s 24 years at the hospital that the system had been triggered in a disaster situation. Two doctors and five nurses answered the call. Draper worked for 19 straight hours.

The first people with injuries from the fire arrived around 3:15 a.m., about the time that Kaiser Santa Rosa and Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital were ordered to evacuate. By 5 a.m., the ER was inundated; the department treated 182 patients that day, up from about 120 on a normal day. Most of those were suffering from respiratory injuries from smoke inhalation; 14 had been charred by the fast-moving flames. Six of those patients, including my stepbrother, had been burned badly enough that they had to be transferred for more specialized treatment. But ambulances were at a premium because they were being used to evacuate people, and Jim needed to be stabilized; he wasn’t transferred for 12 hours.

Nearly 100 miles away, Len Sterling, the nurse manager at the Firefighters Burn Institute Regional Burn Center at UC Davis Medical Center, was growing concerned that his facility and others might not be able to handle all the patients coming in. UC Davis had received four burn victims; Sterling phoned the Bothin Burn Center at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco and learned that it, too, was receiving burn patients. So he alerted the Western Region Burn Disaster Consortium, a coalition of 27 burn units in 13 western states that work together during major disasters, and requested a count of vacant beds. Northern California has only four burn centers: at UC Davis, St. Francis, Shriners Hospitals for Children in Sacramento, and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center in San Jose. In the event that all four are full, the consortium can instruct emergency responders to send patients elsewhere, even outside the state. Ultimately, there would be three beds to spare locally.

My family had gotten no response to our frantic calls, texts, and Facebook messages to Jim. It wasn’t until 10 a.m. on Tuesday, October 10, that we found out he had been transported to the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, 100 miles south. My brother and I rushed to the ICU to find him in what the doctors called a “cocoon of love.” He’d been burned over 18 percent of his body, and he was still intubated when we arrived; his throat had swelled from his wounds. His left arm and other burned areas were dressed with ointment-soaked bandages, and he was covered in blankets. During his 19 days in the hospital, Jim would get two surgeries: the first to clean the dead skin off his wounds, and the second to graft skin from his thigh onto his burns.

Three weeks after the fires, his wounds are steadily healing, but he faces at least a year of therapy to regain mobility. “I consider myself lucky,” Jim told me when I visited him this week. “I could have burned up alive. I am just glad to be home.” Jim is now living with my brother and his family in San Francisco.

Originally published in the December issue of
San Francisco 

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