Heroic Hospital R.N., Colleagues, Work Through the Fire: ‘Babe, there’s no way I’m going to survive this …’

As I lie awake I realize I’m not alone as I read so many others' posts about not being able to sleep and how unreal what happened yesterday is.

So many of my friends and family have lost their homes, jobs, animals, and have family missing.

When I arrived at Feather River (hospital) yesterday morning (Nov. 8) it was “my Friday". I had an orientee and was given a mom/baby-fresh c-section, and an induction.

I assessed them and noticed the orange glow outside. I walked outside with co workers and watched ash fall like snow and a huge growing cloud of fire ... was told it wasn’t super close to the hospital ... continued working.

Within an hour or less I was going room to room telling moms and dads to get up, wrap their babies up and we had to go. No time to grab personal belongings. We raced toward the ER and lined up, staff that had cars started filling them with patients, ambulances, sheriff and police lined up and helped doctors, nurses and all staff load patients from beds and wheelchairs into cars.

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan/gettyimages

I told my co-worker Chrissy Foster to stay close to me. We were scared, but not for our lives yet. We planned to go with our patients to Enloe Hospital and help there if needed, as the last of the patients were loaded.

We hopped into an ambulance with a very critical patient, an awesome EMS staff, and another nurse, Chardonnay.

We started moving forward as we watched flames around us , it only seemed like seconds, but I think we got about a mile when we heard the radio traffic that the ambulance in front of us was on fire. We turned down a road into a driveway and stopped. We were told we can’t go any further right now. I looked around as fire surrounded us. Transformers were blowing up and the winds were SO fierce. This was when I looked at Chrissy and realized we might not make it out at alive. We all got out of the ambulance and moved patients to the garage of the only house not burning. We laid the patients down and tried to reassure their scared faces, while hiding ours.

Photo by Tamara Ferguson

I wanted to run;  just get out and run down the street and dodge flames and get to safety. But reality reminded me I am not faster than a fierce, fast-blowing fire. Do I stay in the ambulance? Hide in the garage with my patients? I looked around and the fire just kept surrounding me growing bigger. I saw cars stuck in gridlock trying to leave; fire surrounding both sides of them.

I felt so scared, hopeless and desperate. I immediately thought of my kids, and the man I love so much; and my family, and I lost it. I called them all and between sobs I said how very much I loved them, how sorry I was for any way that I let them down, or made mistakes and asked my oldest daughters to please make sure their younger siblings were taken care of, and knew how much I loved them.

Photo courtesy of Tamara Ferguson

I desperately called my boyfriend, who is a police officer  -- my hero -- my love.

Photo courtesy of Tamara Ferguson

He had just gotten off working all night, and I knew he wouldn’t answer, but I kept trying. I called one of my closest friends, Julene Cumpton, and I said my goodbye to her between desperate cries and begged her to go to my house and wake him, so I could tell him goodbye and beg him to help me. She did. He called me and I couldn’t contain myself. Being a police officer, and dealing with crisis, he was calm and told me to breathe and that I wasn’t going to die. I told him over and over as I was surrounded by fire, “Babe, there’s no way I’m going to survive this." He asked for my address and I looked at the mailbox and told him. He said, “I am leaving now. I will come get you.”  I was slightly hopeful ...

Then I called my mom, who was out of town, and not only said goodbye, but shared how desperately scared I was, that I didn’t want to die. And like all moms have the right answer, I asked her what to do. I could hear she was trying to calm me, but she knew by my voice, and what she could understand as I was so panicked, was that I was not exaggerating. She told me to just stay there. I really had no choice, so again, she was right.

I overheard my co worker and other nurse calling their loved ones.

Then I saw the paramedic , EMT and our pediatrician spraying the house, filling water buckets, and I got out and said,"What can I do?" A firefighter said clear all this brush so this house continues to keep us safe. Chrissy and I were clearing brush by handfuls. We  found a broom, rake, planters, buckets, and didn’t stop.

Photo by Tamara Ferguson

Sure, we had our breakdowns, and felt hopeless, and then we had our jobs, and why we do what we do came back to reality:
WE need to save our patients and ourselves. If we were going to die today we would at least do it protecting others and do everything we can to live, and we did!

Photo by Tamara Ferguson

What seemed like forever was interrupted by being told to get our patients back into the ambulance and someone’s truck since the other ambulance burned.

We were an awesome team of mostly strangers doing whatever we could as we had to, and we did phenomenal! Our hope was shattered when we’re told we were going BACK to the hospital; not Chico out of the fire. We got there and staff was setting up chairs, gurneys, IV’s, water, snacks and warm blankets. Hospital administration, anesthesiologists, doctors, police officers, paramedics, sheriffs, fire personnel, nurses,, managers, and anyone present was running, triaging, making sure everyone had what they needed.

Chrissy and I sat in a car with a new mom who couldn’t walk yet, post c-section. We put her baby skin to skin, checked his vitals and helped him breastfeed and gave another fresh c-section patient (whose baby went with daddy to Enloe ) pain medication.

As the fire continued to grow, I did get fearful, but not enough to stop what I was doing. As the fire grew closer and into the hospital, we were told to move everyone and the equipment to our helipad area. Again everyone was rushing, running, pushing gurneys, wheelchairs, and we sat up everything again and triaged patients again as gave water and warm blankets and reassurance.

A short time later we were told we would be escorted out of Paradise to local hospitals. Sheriff vans, police cars and ambulances loaded everyone up and we left not one person behind.

I looked out the back window at the devastation, while I conversed with the sweetest 95-year-old woman, we watched the flames beside us. Burnt cars in the road, power lines down, and fresh homes burning.

Photo by Tamara Ferguson

It went on for miles. I honestly couldn’t believe I was alive, that I would see my family, kids and boyfriend again. I called them and told them I made it. They were all crying before I even told them because they couldn’t reach me and thought I was gone.

We got to Oroville Hospital and I helped staff unload lots of patients and get them inside. Then I saw the EMT and paramedic I spent hours with before, and we hugged so tightly.

I sat with my elderly friend as she waited and watched for her husband. I held her hand and said,"I will never forget you, these moments, this ride to Oroville AWAY from the fire." She told me the same, and thanked me and said she has a diary, and I was going to be in it today, about today. I teared up. I will never forget her, and there is a picture of me and her, before I spent that ride with her, doing what I love, being a nurse, a friend, a hand to hold, or an ear to listen.

Photo credit: Justin Sullivan, gettyimages,

I will forever be changed by yesterday, as so many thousands of others are, but not by what was physically lost, but the reminder that life changes quickly. Today and everyday I urge you to live with no regrets, to do what makes you happy, to make sure your loved ones know how much you love them, and how much they mean to you, and to NEVER take one second for granted.

Trial by fire: One pediatrician, some nurses, firefighters and the ambulance crew all worked together to save patients after the Camp Fire converged upon Feather River Hospital in Paradise. Photo courtesy of Tamara Ferguson.

Thank you to my friends, family and complete strangers who have reached out to me; people from states far away.  So much love. I am beyond thankful for each of you, and to be lying next to the man I love writing this, in a house of 16 adults, 4 kids, 8 animals (our  family from Paradise who likely lost their homes), and the opportunity to be even more than I was before.

Tamara Ferguson has worked at Adventist Health Feather River Hospital in Paradise for 20 years where she is an RN who specializes in labor and delivery. She's proud of her accomplishment of enrolling in nursing school as a single mother, then earning her degree and graduating with honors.

She has five children ages 6 through 24. 

Ferguson is passionate about her nursing profession, and last year was the recipient of the Daisy Award that recognizes and honors extraordinary nurses. 

She says she is living her dream job, and is thankful and honored to have been part of one of the most challenging days in the hospital's history. She is humbled and proud to call herself a Camp Fire survivor, someone who worked as a member of a team to help patients survive what is now recognized the most destructive in California history. 

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9 Responses

  1. Janet Stortz says:

    Love this and your bravery, as a daughter of 91 year old mother who was evacuated 3 times in the Carr Fire I appreciate you and all the brave souls that help us get through these trials by fire.
    thank you
    Janet

  2. Beverly Stafford says:

    Thank you, Tamara. Thank you for being the caring nurse and person you are and for writing this heart-stopping story. Our friends in Paradise made it out to their cabin in Truckee. Every year they put on a Christmas program for the community. When I e-mailed her hoping they were all OK, I said that the Christmas program would no doubt be canceled this year. She replied that there would be no place to hold the program since the LDS church was destroyed. Then quipped, “I guess we can stop rehearsing.”

  3. Ann B. says:

    So, what an amazing story. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Adrienne Jacoby Adrienne Jacoby says:

    Well, I don’t know if I type this with tears running down my face . . . I just want to say, I HONOR YOU. I HONOR THE HUMAN FACE OF ACTIVE SURVIVAL. i honor the compassion,, the integrity, the strength that I’ll bet you didn’t even know you had. Thank you for being the very best of who you are.

  5. Darcie Gore says:

    Bless you and all first responders! We (the public) often assume things are going in in orderly fashion when we read of the hospital being evacuated. The reality is you have all put your own lives on the line for us. Thank you for sharing and thank you for caring!

  6. Candace C says:

    Thank you for your bravery. Thank you for your compassion. Thank you for your humanity. Thank you for your service. THANK YOU

  7. Cathy Stone says:

    Wow! What a terrifying experience! Thank you for all you did under such circumstances. My hat is off to you and all the other helpers that persevered until everyone was safe. Thank you!

  8. Steven Towers Steven Towers says:

    I’m not crying. YOU’RE crying.

  9. Richard & Tammy Douse says:

    You write so well, maybe there is a book in your future. Thanks for sharing your incredible experience.

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