Smoke was in the air as the Tubbs Fire blew towards Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital on Monday, October 9th, 2017.
Dr. Scott Witt, the managing director of the hospital’s Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU) was at home, four miles away, after a long, busy day. Jennifer Huot, R.N., the night shift nursing supervisor, was doing her rounds — but had smelled smoke on the drive into work.
Then the hospital was ordered to evacuate, and these two health heroes jumped into action. Read on to hear how they kept their patients healthy and safe.
When the alert came, Dr. Witt hopped onto his motorcycle, heading to the hospital to help however he could. When he arrived, he saw that nursing supervisor Huot and the other night staff had already put life-saving procedures into place — and about a hundred evacuees were arriving from the surrounding community.
Dr. Witt headed to the NICU to check on his charges, the littlest and most vulnerable babies in the hospital. Despite the fact that fire threatened the hospital — with the hospital’s landscaping burning, blowing embers igniting small fires on the roof and burning structures just across the parking lot — he remained calm. “Emergencies are routine, so we prepare for them.”
There were eight babies in the NICU that night, and only one transport incubator. That wasn’t a problem for this team — they innovated, sending the babies who needed full environmental support in the transport incubator, and sending those who just needed temperature control in the back of an ambulance, held against their mothers' bodies.
Meanwhile, Huot and her team managed the general evacuation, ensuring that the other patients who needed critical care were also quickly and safely transported to a nearby hospital — along with about one hundred people from the surrounding community who had sought shelter at Sutter Santa Rosa. When patients needed reassurance, Huot told them she was going to be the last person in the hospital.
Dr. Witt wasn’t leaving without his patients, either. When the time came for the last baby to evacuate, Dr. Witt got back on his motorcycle to follow the ambulance to the evacuation hospital. But the freeway was more intense than he thought it would be; roadside vegetation was on fire, power lines were down, debris was falling, and burning embers were cascading all around him. “I was seeing Armageddon-like destruction on each side, but I just had to focus on being as safe as I could in that moment.”
Dr. Witt drafted as close behind the ambulance as he could, while remaining vigilant for sudden stops. When he finally arrived safely at his destination, he made sure the last of the NICU babies was settled in and consulted with the staff to make sure each baby’s care plan was shared.
Medical professionals train for emergencies — it’s part of their job. And Dr. Witt and Jennifer Huot’s training, calm, and instincts helped them through this incredibly challenging experience.
“I work with an amazing set of people,” said Huot. “I couldn’t have done it without them. People who weren’t even working came in and were actually putting out the fire — with extinguishers, shovels, and even their shoes.”
As for Dr. Witt, he swears he was just doing his job. “We love these babies like they’re our own. I didn’t do anything for them that I wouldn’t do for my own baby. You love them the way a mom loves them.”
More than 60 Sutter Santa Rosa employees lost their homes in the fire. Dr. Witt’s house was one of those lost, burned to the foundation, but he’s just grateful and thankful that his family and patients were safe.
Sutter Santa Rosa Hospital was reopened just eight days after the evacuation, and Dr. Witt and Jennifer Huot are back on the job, helping to keep their community healthy and safe.
It’s no secret that Californians face more than their share of disasters. Here are two tips from these health heroes for how to stay safe:
- Have a plan: Make sure you know where to meet your family and loved ones in the event of an emergency.
- If you’ve been ordered to evacuate, do it: Don’t wait around if authorities tell you to seek shelter. Take your loved ones, and go to a safe space.