Dr. Judith Reynolds keeps a bag in her trunk with enough supplies to get her through three days in a shelter. Like any member of the Medical Reserve Corps, she stays prepared to help at the sites of fires, tornadoes, floods, earthquakes and other disasters.
As soon as the Waldo Canyon Fire started on Saturday, June 23, Reynolds and her colleagues started getting alerts. They were asked to stand by, then quickly deployed to shelters, where Reynolds started putting in hours on the ground.
But on Tuesday, the 63-year-old and her spouse received mandatory evacuation orders themselves. They packed up their most important belongings in their car. Then, after making sure her elderly mother, who lives nearby, was out of harm's way, they left their home behind.
Across the city, social service organizations have enjoyed the generosity of the community, which has offered donations and countless volunteer hours. But nonprofits like Pikes Peak United Way, Catholic Charities of Central Colorado and the Pikes Peak Chapter of the American Red Cross say their biggest strain has been on staff members who have put in long hours coordinating relief efforts. And each of the previously mentioned organizations note that at least a few of their employees are also evacuees.
Some of them may have lost their homes.
"Certainly, current staff are stretched to the limit," says Catholic Charities president and CEO Mark Rohlena. "And one of the interesting things is, it's very sad, but we have staff that are themselves displaced."
Yet last Saturday afternoon, we found Reynolds — former medical director at the El Paso County Department of Health and Environment and former Colorado College medical director — at the Cheyenne Mountain High School Red Cross shelter. She wasn't looking for help. She was the help. Here are excerpts from our talk with her.
Indy: Can you tell me about your experience?
Judith Reynolds: We have this wonderful group of volunteers called the Medical Reserve Corps. And it got started after 9/11 and there are national Medical Reserve Corps, but El Paso County has one of the most active ones, and I would say one of the most dedicated ones.
We also have a very special relationship with the Red Cross. We have been training for several years now to help the Red Cross with medical help when they get overwhelmed in the shelters. And we're the only Medical Reserve Corps in the country that has that relationship with Red Cross. ...
We have nurses, PAs, nurse practitioners, physicians, we also have behavioral health service, so we have wonderful therapists, psychiatrists.
We also have some clergy who will help us with spiritual needs. So it's a fantastic organization that really works quietly, under the radar, that people really don't know about.
Indy: And you've put a lot of time into this particular disaster.
JR: Well, I think we have ... The way the Red Cross works sometimes is, when they get to a point where they're pretty overwhelmed, they'll call in [the national Red Cross], which is what's happened, because this is the biggest disaster in the nation at the moment. And they can bring in resources from — we just had a behavioral health person come in from Maine yesterday; I had a nurse from Salt Lake City a couple of days ago.
So we certainly, locally, will help them until that happens, and even if they call in national I think they're still very appreciative. Red Cross has said it's really rare for them to have someone like a physician, a PA or a nurse practitioner in a shelter.
Indy: What about your own story?
JR: I was evacuated on Tuesday. I live up on Mesa Road just west of 30th [Street], and we were watching the flames. I mean, I saw the fire on Saturday, because I am so well-trained because of MRC, we have done this drill a lot. In fact we had an exercise planned in September called "Sparks Fly," which is a whole mass disaster drill that we were going to do with the city, the county, the Red Cross on a wildfire.
So all of us are saying this is kind of surreal, because we've practiced the disaster so much. So when I saw the flames on Saturday, I can walk to where those flames were, about an hour and 15 minutes from my house. I knew how close that was, and I knew how fast wildfires are. So I started actually packing then. You know, what do you have to lose?
Indy: Do you feel secure about your home now?
JR: We're still on provisionary return, which means we still have our belongings with friends, but we did take a little kit to spend the night in our house. And again, there was that new plume [Friday], which was terrifying because again, that was right over Queens Canyon, so we didn't sleep very well. I mean, I haven't slept much in four days. And that's, I think, the hardest thing when you're an evacuee and you're also working.
I said to the nurses, "Look, if I start doing something strange to a patient, let me know, because I haven't had much sleep, and I'm preoccupied and worried." The nurse I worked with up at Lewis-Palmer [High School, another evacuee shelter] a couple days ago, she was busy packing up her house while she was working in the shelter. They weren't evacuated, I don't think yet.
But I'm so proud of these volunteers who are — you know, their whole lives have been disrupted, and they're willing to help others.
Indy: What made you decide to volunteer even after you were evacuated?
JR: This is what I'm trained to do. ... There's some of us, I guess it's like firefighters, there's a certain adrenaline that makes you want to kind of focus and mobilize, and it makes you not think about your own tragedy.
I mean, I'm so glad I don't have to watch the television or listen to the radio right now. It's just too much to say, "OK, is our street on the list?" It's better to focus on others.
Indy: Where do you practice?
JR: I'm at Colorado Treatment Services, which is [off] East Bijou [Street]. And we do, you know, Oxycontin addiction, heroin addiction.
Indy: That's hard stuff.
JR: It's hard stuff, but it's OK, it's very satisfying when it works out.
Indy: What have you been seeing people here for?
JR: Early on in the disaster, there were obviously a lot of smoke-related issues: asthma, emphysema, burning eyes, runny nose, sinus issues. People were really struggling with the smoke. Lots of emotional issues. If someone has a previously existing psychiatric problem, you add this kind of trauma, that can really throw them off and escalate that issue.
So I'd say smoke-related, psychiatric stuff, and then just kind of general injuries. I mean, people are rushing, loading, cutting, hurting themselves. They're twisting ankles and knees. I know what that's like, you're just putting it in your car as fast as you can.
Older people are a real concern ... there's been some places that have been really kind to come and take some of our elderly patients to a sort of quieter environment.
Because especially older people who've had some dementia issues or ambulatory issue or any kind of special needs like that, sometimes it's hard.
Indy: We all know in the back of our minds that this could happen to us, but at the same time, it's so strange.
JR: I never thought I would be an evacuee and be responding to the disaster. ... But at the same time, I can completely relate to all the evacuees in the shelter.
And when I sort of shared with them, "Yes, I'm an evacuee too," somehow that sort of helped seal the bond of understanding, that I kind of knew what they were going through.
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