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Fire Destroys McKenzie River Health Clinic, Staff Reconfigures

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Tiffany Eckert
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The Holiday Farm fire destroyed nearly every structure in the remote town of Blue River and cut McKenzie Valley residents off from key services: the post office, the library, the general market. Especially critical was the loss of the medical clinic. But as the community is learning, it’s not so much the buildings that make the difference --it’s the people.

Even as the Blue River clinic building still smoldered on September 8th, health care crews began mobilizing. Emergency Medical Technicians and a physician from Eugene took the back way on Highway 20 to enter the fire zone. They set up a make-shift triage unit and started conducting house to house checks.

“It’s like the Old West out here.”

That’s Kelly Davis, a Community Healthcare Worker with Orchid Health McKenzie River clinic. She lives at McKenzie Bridge.

“This changed my life working in a disaster area- all the first responders, and the boots on ground. You know? No communication, no internet, no nothing.”

A lot of folks may not know that the McKenzie River Clinic is the oldest rural health clinic in the state. According to the Oregon Office of Rural Health, it was federally certified in 1978. Since then, the free-standing clinic has continued to serve patients –through the “snowpocalypse” two winters ago, a global pandemic and the devastating Holiday Farm fire.

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Without familiar landmarks, it's hard to navigate parts of the McKenzie highway. Structures that once indicated a location on the river are now just gone.

Dr. Tia Cloke is the Family Nurse Practitioner. The reporter asked, “If you could describe, where are we?”

“We are at our temporary clinic location that we have set up in the Quilt Shop up in Rainbow,” said Cloke, “so that we’ve got a location where I can actually physically see patients in person.”

That’s right-- she said ‘Quilt Shop.’ In this make-shift health clinic there are spools of thread and bolts of quilting fabric amidst topical medicines and examination equipment.  

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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Dr. Tia Cloke is the Family Nurse Practitioner at Orchid Health McKenzie River clinic. She also lost her house in the Holiday Farm fire and works out of The Quilt Shop-turned-clinic. Despite the losses, she and her family "aren't going anywhere."

“The whole COVID situation made it nearly impossible to order supplies to start with. We back ordered and so everything we have now is donated supplies.”

Cloke says since the fire, people have gotten word of the temporary clinic operation and show up in the parking lot of the Quilt Shop with their masks on, seeking care.

“I have a hand-hold otoscope, I’ve got my stethoscope,” Cloke said, “we’ve been able to do some things like injections for Depo-Provera, B12. Blood pressure, heart. We can do kind of a basic exam right now.”

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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The Rustic Quilt Shop, across from Harbick's Store at Rainbow on the McKenzie River. When emergency and health care crews needed a space to see patients and operate, the shop became a clinic.

The clinic staff maintains a list of high-risk patients and they have been doing house calls. Some are just arriving back from a wellness check (hear healthcare staff entering.)

“Our community health worker has been picking up grocery items at the relief center and taking it with them on those trips,” Cloke added, “cat food or basically whatever that person needs and we’ve been trying to take it out whenever we get a check on them.”

Before the fire, Cloke said they would see between 7 and 15 people on any given day. The rural health clinic also serves as a sort of urgent care for McKenzie River vacationers who get hurt or sick. The clinic building in Blue River was over 50 miles “from town” or-- Springfield. For many river residents, this is all the health care they receive.

“We have a large number of elderly patients who have a hard time making it to town,” Cloke said. “We also have a large portion of either uninsured or underinsured and low-income individuals who had very little resources prior to the fire—even worse now.”

Orchid Health McKenzie River clinic plans to acquire a mobile unit to reach patients who evacuated the fire and remain in temporary housing elsewhere, Cloke said. They will also do telehealth/video visits. 

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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McKenzie River health care staff do house calls/wellness checks, see patients in person and offer video/telehealth conferencing (for any patients who have had internet restored.)

Never before have the health care needs in this community been greater. Cloke knows a nurse practitioner’s job is to serve. With a doctorate in Nursing Practice, she says this is what she’s been trained to do.

“I love my patients. I love my community,” Cloke said.

In the rubble where the Blue River clinic building once stood, staff found a few remnants. Cloke’s nurses pin was melted into her reflex hammer.

“We found the procedure room and my crash cart and the awesome procedure table that we had,” said Cloke. “And then you look out back and we’re like, ‘hey but our picnic table survived. Our lunch spot is still there!’ as if nothing happened.”

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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The Orchid Health McKenzie River clinic was located at the end of Dexter Road in Blue River. The Holiday Farm fire tore through the area on September 7th and 8th. Today, it's being cleared of rubble and fire debris with plans to rebuild

Cloke has been assured the clinic will be rebuilt, most likely right where it once stood in Blue River, just off Highway 126. As we speak, the property is slowly being cleared of burned out debris. This nurse says a lot of her patients worried- when she lost her house and the clinic—that she and her family might leave the area. 

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A double rainbow forms over the tiny town of Rainbow, just down the road from the Rustic Quilt Shop turned health clinic.

“We are rebuilding our garage, trying to get a spot to park our 5th Wheel and we are not going anywhere,” Cloke insisted. “We are definitely staying.”

A light rain has fallen since we’ve been inside the temporary clinic. Turning to leave, the sun peeks out and as if on cue, a brilliant rainbow stretches over the whole of this mountain river town. A reminder of the resilience of the people who still call this place home.

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Credit Tiffany Eckert
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The McKenzie River keeps flowing along,
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Rainbow over McKenzie Highway 126 near McKenzie Bridge.

Tiffany joined the KLCC News team in 2007. She studied journalism at the University of Missouri-Columbia and has worked in a variety of media including television and daily print news. For KLCC, Tiffany reports on health care, social justice and local/regional news. She has won awards from Oregon Associated Press, PRNDI, and Education Writers Association.
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