Medical staff — and a patient — walked arm in arm, each person holding a baby from the neonatal intensive care unit, down the stairs and toward the ambulances waiting outside.
They were evacuating Centura-Avista Adventist Hospital in Louisville on Dec. 30 as winds blew the Marshall fire toward the hospital. The group decided to take the stairs out of the hospital, considering an elevator ride too risky.
NICU nurse Allison Brown took a photo when she got into the ambulance on the way to St. Anthony North Hospital in Westminster of herself and the baby she was with.
“It was really as a timestamp, like if anything happens, ‘this is who I am and this is who I’m with and we made it this far,’” Brown said, adding “it had to have been the scariest day of my life.”
In the span of about three hours, the hospital evacuated 51 patients that day — 21 went home and the others to two Centura hospitals: 25 to St. Anthony North and five to Longmont United — as well as 100 staff members, according to a hospital spokesperson. Flames from the fire came within feet of liquid oxygen tanks on the west side of the hospital, but ultimately the hospital remained standing. Still, extensive smoke damage has led to its indefinite closure as crews work to mitigate and clean up the aftermath.
Hospital CEO Isaac Sendros was headed to the mountains with his family and had made it to Nederland when he heard that the fire was encroaching on Avista, so he quickly turned around. The high winds were especially concerning.
Sendros, having worked in Florida, was used to preparing a hospital for hurricanes, but in those situations, you have much more time to plan. When he arrived at Avista that afternoon, he walked directly into the emergency room department and saw the line of patients getting ready for transport.
Everything was moving rapidly. Patients were being transferred, per protocol, but on a much larger scale. COVID patients who were on ventilators had to be taken care of by people who were wearing the correct protective equipment. A mother was in mid-delivery.
By the time Sendros himself left, he said the neighborhood was in flames, the fire had jumped the road and the fields near the front parking lot were on fire, with trees smoldering.
“The team was calm and the team was focused, and the team, to an extent, knew what was happening around them, but they understood that their priority was getting these patients out,” Sendros said of the evacuations. He said he saw “selfless acts of courage” that day.
Hospital staff members who lived nearby, including Brown, didn’t know if they would return to their own homes and find that they had been destroyed by the fire or if all their family members, friends and pets were safe, but they had to put much of it aside as they got their patients out of harm’s way. They bundled babies with warm hats and blankets, stored frozen breast milk in coolers, and grabbed babies and equipment and began their trek.
A few babies who were on CPAP (continuous positive airway pressure) had come off the machines that morning, so “we were really lucky to have a strong and stable bunch at that point,” Brown said. And some parents were able to pick up their own babies and transport them, but Brown said walking those scared parents out was one of the most heartbreaking things she’s ever done.
“I think everyone can remember that first car ride home … with your new baby. And then to think that we’re putting these babies in the car in the middle of this — it was like it was apocalyptic outside, just with the wind and the smoke and the fire and the chunks of ash that you could see flowing by — and we’re putting these moms and dads in the car and hugging them and just telling them, ‘you can do this, you will get home safely and you can do this,’ and just that’s just never the way that we want to say goodbye,” Brown said.
For Sunnie Paintin, a patient access representative, her workday started out fairly normal — she was training a new staff member and checking in people to the emergency room department in the morning. But it didn’t take long for the day to shift. Soon, nurses were coming down with babies through the ER and she was trying to help get patients out quickly before she was sent to the hospital in Longmont to provide support. She said her job almost felt like that of an air traffic controller.
“I reacted versus thinking during it,” Paintin said. “I jumped in, we were tossing blankets over patients to go out to have coverage because some of them didn’t have jackets, and to prevent even more smoke coming into their own lungs.”
When she was able to finally leave herself, Paintin said the smoke was gagging. She could see flames around her, and at one point while at a stoplight, she saw the lights go out around her. “It had an Armageddon-y feel,” she said.
This is not something Paintin or many of her colleagues had considered ever having to do but, like others, she commended how efficiently and quickly the staff worked as a team to get people out safely.
North Metro EMS Chief Mark Daugherty, who helped manage evacuations of patients without waiting for additional resources because of the fast-moving fire, said the biggest challenge was finding available beds for patients, especially as emergency responders tried to coordinate other evacuations.
“The health care workers, first responders, firefighters, paramedics, everybody has been so strained over the last few years and been at the breaking point in some ways and staffing has been difficult and overtime has been heavy,” Daugherty said. But the responders were professional, skillful and resourceful, and he was proud to work with them, he added.
A nearby hospital evacuation
Earlier that afternoon, staff at the Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette had been preparing to accept patients from Avista, six miles away, when they realized the rapidly moving fire that forced its evacuation was also heading their way.
“As we started to prepare for the potential to receive their patients, we quickly realized we were not in the clear ourselves,” said Bryan Fleming, director of system emergency management at SCL Health, owner of Good Samaritan.
The campus the hospital sits on only has one good route of escape — west onto US 287. That north-south road served as a barrier, but if it were breached, any evacuation would prove difficult. Acres of dried-out fields, the kind that provided a path for the fire deep into Boulder County’s more densely populated suburbs, surrounded the area.
The hospital discharged patients who were ready to leave and sent visitors home. The emergency room closed and labor and delivery services were paused. The hospital put out a call to ambulance crews for help in case an evacuation was required.
“We had a tremendous outpouring from the EMS agencies that supported us. We had countless ambulances staged in the area,” Fleming said.
If clogged roads made transport difficult or if power supplies failed, patients who were most vulnerable were given priority and relocated as a precautionary measure. About 55 critical patients were relocated to Lutheran Medical Center, Saint Joseph Hospital and Platte Valley Medical Center, SCL sister facilities.
Wendy Cardona, an operating room registered nurse, had only been working at the hospital for five weeks before the fire. She was already at work when she got a text from her fiance telling her about a fire near Boulder. She had felt the strong winds that morning and started to worry, but she continued on with her day. A couple of hours later, while she was preparing an operating room, surgeries were halted.
They were in a holding pattern. That’s when she took a photo that has since garnered a lot of attention on social media of the fire from a west-facing hospital window in a dark x-ray room.
In the photo, other nurses look out the window where ambulances are transporting patients, the fire raging in the distance behind them. Another nurse, masked, is looking intently on her phone.
“The lights from the outside and the fire was very vivid, and … it was a striking scene,” she said.
Around 8:30 p.m., after temperatures had cooled, everyone started to breathe easier and by midnight another emergency response team took over. The hospital never had to evacuate the remaining 100 patients still in its care.
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