Uncertain prognosis

Hospitals fill void of Feather River’s closure for uncertain duration

Adventist Health Feather River suffered significant damage to lower portions of the hospital, including radiological services, but the main building remains standing.

Adventist Health Feather River suffered significant damage to lower portions of the hospital, including radiological services, but the main building remains standing.

Photo by Meredith J. Cooper

As the Camp Fire scorched its way across the Ridge, employees at Paradise’s hospital and associated care facilities raced to get patients out of flames’ way. One Adventist Health Feather River employee, evacuating the medical center, found himself trapped on the Pentz Road site—long enough to see his house, across the street, burn down. He and the patients with whom he sheltered in place made it out safely.

With ambulances full and helicopters taken, nurses and support staff placed patients in personal vehicles for transport off the hill—to Enloe Medical Center, Oroville Hospital and Orchard Hospital in Gridley—along treacherous roadways.

“The people that were on the front lines in this situation, they were absolutely courageous,” Enloe CEO Mike Wiltermood said. “You can’t imagine what those folks went through.”

What Adventist Health did not do was guarantee the future of their workplace. Asked twice to commit to reopening the hospital, leaders hedged. They essentially told employees what Jill Kinney, a regional director of communications, told N&R when asked how much, and whether, Adventist Health will rebuild Feather River: “We are very committed to that community; that said, it’s still way too early for us to make any of those determinations at this point.”

Bill Wing, corporate president of Adventist Health, noted that a lot of the medical center’s patients have been “displaced; we don’t know where they’re at.”

As for the facilities, much of the main campus and many satellite clinics remain standing. Kinney told N&R that “standing” doesn’t mean they know the full extent of the damage.

In the short term, Adventist Health Feather River set up a command station at Enloe to coordinate care with other hospitals and care centers.

“There may be some areas of the Feather River campus that can get back into operation sooner rather than later,” Wiltermood said. “At this point, between the three remaining hospitals in Butte County, in-patient capacity probably isn’t the concern—it will be physicians and nurses and the clinical folks that we’ll need to take care of patients. I’m sure with Feather River and Adventist collaboration, we’ll be able to fill those needs, at least in the immediate future.”

Enloe already has brought Feather River nurses and doctors on board, issuing them emergency credentials to work in the hospital.

“One of my bigger concerns is many of our clinics are backed up already,” Wiltermood continued, “and if the primary care component and the emergency room component in Paradise are completely devastated, that’s going to be tough.”

Oroville Hospital CEO Robert Wentz concurred, noting that Feather River’s hospital census—101 beds, with 69 patients on November 8—can be absorbed. “The bigger issue is outpatient,” he said, “and while we lost the hospital, we did not lose the doctors. So the resource is still there; we just need to make sure they find a place where they can operate and we can see the patients.”

Oroville Hospital can provide that access now, Wentz added, by expanding the hours and adding days at existing medical offices and clinics. He anticipates an ongoing need for prescription refills and other routine health care needs.

Feather River closed for the first time in its history, dating to 1950, back in 2008, because of its proximity to the Humboldt Fire. It was ready to reopen quickly—delayed more than a month by state-mandated inspections. This time may prove more difficult.

With all the Camp Fire destruction, “I think probably about a year,” Wentz estimated. “It took them around 90 days to get back up totally [in 2008], and that was with absolutely no damage to the hospital.”

Enloe has over 300 employees who live in Paradise or Magalia. Wiltermood said the hospital will make sure to be cognizant of time off and offer grief counseling. Meanwhile, patients with Anthem Blue Cross as their health insurer got a reprieve when Enloe and Anthem, whose coverage agreement ended November 1, reinstated their contract through December 31.

Moving forward, Wiltermood said, “this isn’t a two- or three-week [event] and everything goes back to normal. This is something our communities are going to be dealing with probably for years as we try to rebuild.”