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Barton Health Provider Reflects On Evacuating Her Home And Hospital During Caldor Fire

Protell, her husband and two young daughters are sitting outside against a horizontal tree log for a family photo. There is dry vegetation in front of them and green trees behind them, which are out of focus.
Courtesy of Tracy Protell
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Barton Health psychiatrist Tracy Protell (second from left) and her family in the Zephyr Cove area, Nev., in October 2019.

Firefighters are continuing to make progress on the Caldor Fire, which is a relief to many in South Lake Tahoe. At the end of August, the community evacuated, including the area’s hospital, Barton Health. It took about two weeks before the hospital became fully operational again.

It’s an already challenging year for health care providers who are grappling with a pandemic. Barton psychiatrist Tracy Protell shares how she managed professionally and as a parent.

I am currently an outpatient psychiatrist and medical director of psychiatry and behavioral health services at Barton. It became clear that the fire professionals, as well as health care professionals in our town, believed that there was significant risk that the hospital may be involved in the fire.

When the risk became evident, basics, such as making sure I had everyone in my department’s phone numbers, and I actually knew which areas of South Lake Tahoe they lived in so that we could better understand what risk they may be at and where they would be in any evacuation orders. Then it became checking in with people when evacuation orders did come in, that they were okay, and they were safe, and sort of modifying literally hour by hour what our operation plans were.

Unfortunately, because of the pandemic, but fortunately for us, we’ve really had to adopt decent virtual care models, so we already have those things in place, so that part went fairly smoothly.

The evacuation came out pretty quickly, and the hospital did a great job of communicating what was happening, but people were scattered all over and not necessarily hearing that, so there was a lot of confusion about what was happening by families. Personally, I sent emails just explaining how to get in touch with me and what to do if they needed prescriptions.

I’ve been happy to be able to be there for some of those people, even if I can’t provide anything more than validation at how hard this is.

At first, the biggest stressor for me was watching the fire progression. For a while, it actually appeared to be headed towards our area in Stateline, off Kingsbury. That was very stressful. I definitely checked my phone too often.

As it became clear the firefighters were really gaining control over this fire more and more, and the risk was going down, my main stress did become my work and my family. Making sure my young kids were not too traumatized by this whole event and that they felt safe, secure and knew things were headed in a good direction.

I have a nine-year-old who’s in fourth grade and a seven-year-old who is in second grade. My kids are amazingly resilient. They tend to handle stress fairly well. My youngest, maybe one or two days before we evacuated, became very emotional. And all she could say was, “It’s just too much. COVID, and then now this with the fires, it’s too much,” and I had to agree with her. I said, “Yes, it is too much,” and we just had a moment where we talked about it’s okay to be really sad and really scared sometimes, but that also to understand we are okay and we’re safe, and we will get through this.

I know it’s impacting them a little differently, and each kid’s in a different situation, but in general, children and teenagers need some level of predictability. They need security, and they need to feel that the structure around them, the adults around them, are able to keep them safe. And I think that the last year and a half has been very hard for kids to feel a sense of security when there’s so much uncertainty.

In my line of work, I’m always reminded at people’s amazing ability to cope with these stressors and be resilient.

This story was produced by KUNR’s Lucia Starbuck. Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

The music in this story is an adaptation of “Ces” by Ben Nestor, which is licensed under a Creative Commons attribution.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America focusing on community reporting and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Local community issues are her passion, including the affordable housing crisis, homelessness, a lack of access to healthcare, protests and challenges facing vulnerable communities in northern Nevada.
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