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Oregon's oldest rural health clinic perseveres two years after devastating Holiday Farm Fire

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
Shawn DuFault is Medical Assistant at Orchid Health McKenzie River Clinic and a volunteer fire fighter and first responder.

Two years ago, the Holiday Farm Fire destroyed the town of Blue River. Today, the land-- and people-- are still in a state of recovery. On the day of the 2nd anniversary of the devastating fire, KLCC revisits the McKenzie River Valley’s only medical clinic, which has continued to care for traumatized residents.

Just entering the doors of this rural clinic, Community Health Worker Daisy Cruz is on the phone with a patient-- “Can I help you with any other prescriptions?”

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
Orchid Heath McKenzie River Clinic's Medical Assistant Shawn DuFault (left) and Community Health Worker, Daisy Cruz, hold down the health care fort. They say they love their patients.

Then I meet Shawn DuFault—she’s the medical assistant here at Orchid Health McKenzie River Clinic.

“And I’m also a local volunteer fire fighter and first responder,” she added. To which I asked, “So, you are ready to go, boots on the ground, if you are needed?”

“Oh yes. We fought a wildfire in my neighborhood a couple weeks ago and defended two homes successfully. So, it’s an everyday thing upriver. To just be there for your community and know that we are needed- and the community supports us too,” she said.

Two years have passed since the Holiday Farm fire obliterated Blue River. In one night, all the places that make a town were gone: the library, the fire house, and the only health clinic for fifty miles.

DuFault remembers how clinic staff rallied.

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
Aftermath: The burnt-out site of the former McKenzie River Clinic in Blue River. Design plans are underway to rebuild the clinic on the same site. Meantime, the clinic still operates out of the renovated Quilt Shop in Rainbow.

“The day after the fire, it was just all ashes and rubble and the community pulled together and we threw up a tent out in the yard outside of the old Rustic Skillet or the Quilt Shop and a couple days later the owner gave us the keys and we just turned the Quilt Shop into a clinic,” DuFault said. “And it has operated as such ever since. Everyday just getting better and better.”

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
A view of the former site of the McKenzie River Clinic, two years to the day after it burned to the ground during the Holiday Farm Fire. (September 7, 2020-September 7, 2022)

The new location is about 6 miles from Blue River in Rainbow. The clinic has expanded services, with pediatrics and urgent care. DuFault says they’re adding behavioral health and a community health worker to provide outreach during the ongoing fire recovery.

“Because it’s not really about yesterday,” said DuFault. “It’s more about tomorrow.”

“We are survivors of the fire. We lost our home in it.”

Cheryl and James Shirley moved to the McKenzie Valley five years ago.

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Tiffany Eckert
/
KLCC
Following 19 years marriage, the Shirleys "adore" living in the upper McKenzie Valley with their three kids. Even though they lost their home to the HFF and continue to work on whole family health challenges, they credit this health clinic with their success.

“Have you begun rebuilding?” I asked.

Reticently Cheryl answered, “Oh, that’s frustrating. There’s a bunch of red tape and getting financing has been super hard. So, um we’re looking at different avenues on what we need to do because our children are tired of being on top of each other. We’re in RV trailers on our property.”

On this two-year anniversary of the fire, the couple really wants to talk about this rural health clinic and what it’s meant to them after so much loss and trauma.

“All of the staff here have been super phenomenal,” Shirley said. “They’ve started programs like um-- me and my husband are diabetics- about educating more. And how to help us and learn more about how our body works with the disability.” Cheryl points to a smiling young woman holding a chart. “She advocates for what’s best.”

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
Licensed Nurse Practitioner Elizabeth Cramer is newly transplanted from Kansas to Nimrod, Ore. She specializes in chronic pain management with an approach that is "compassionate and judgement free."

“Hi, I’m Lizzy Cramer, Nurse Practitioner. I take care of all ages. I handle primary care. I take care of a lot of the elderly in our community and I really love and specialize in chronic pain management,” she said. “I try to provide a compassionate approach that is judgement free.”

Cramer moved to the McKenzie Valley from Kansas. She lives off Highway 126 in Nimrod and says it’s weird to have a new home in a burn scar. But looking past the destruction, Cramer finds solace in nature’s resiliency.

“I mean I even tell my patients if they’re feeling kinda sad or depressed, I’ll tell them to take a look,” she said. “Take a look at their area and see what has burned and see what they can find that is beautiful in it. And patients have come back with all sorts of really cool reports about things.”

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
Registered Nurse Lizzy Cramer is a forager. As part of her care to patients who are fire survivors, she encourages them to look beyond the sadness to see the regrowth and beauty around them. And then she gives them a bag of wild chantarelle mushrooms.

James Shirley fidgeted with his mask when I ask if he knew that the McKenzie River Clinic is the oldest rural health clinic in all of Oregon.

“Actually- I did not,” he replied. “All I know is I enjoy coming here. I am a veteran and I’m using Veteran’s Choice to actually come up here instead of going down to Eugene for my care. I’m well-treated and I love coming here.”

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
19 years of marriage and three sons keep Cheryl and James Shirley interested in their health and grateful to the McKenzie River Clinic staff.

The Shirleys have three sons who also receive their health care here.

“The oldest and the youngest are on the autism spectrum. And so, getting them to open up and become comfortable with people in the first place, is very difficult,” he said. “The fact that when they come here, it’s very open, they like visiting the people here, so they trust them. It’s very good for us. Because they are getting the care that they need and we’re getting the support we need.”

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
Outside the fully outfitted, interim McKenzie River Clinic (formerly the Rustic Quilt Shop) in Rainbow--stands the all-female staff ready to provide care: (R to L) Kathy Severin, RN, Shawn DuFault, Medical Assistant, Elizabeth Cramer, LNP, and Daisy Cruz, Community Health Worker.

The transformation from quilt shop to fully-functioning, interim medical clinic has been impressive. Still, DuFault has strong opinions about rebuilding the clinic on the site where it was destroyed two years ago.

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Tiffany Eckert
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KLCC
Two years after the McKenzie River Clinic burned to the ground, health care staff persevere to provide care to the rural community.

“I think it’s necessary. We need to, as a community, come together and show that we’re still here. And that we’re vibrant and that we’re ready to face the future together. And I think the rebuilding of not only the clinic, but the fire department and the library will really reestablish the downtown Blue River area as the place to be.”

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McKenzie River Clinic
"So, it’s an everyday thing upriver. To just be there for your community and know that we are needed- and the community supports us too,” says the medical assistant at Orchid Health McKenzie River Clinic. This event over the weekend is one such example.

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.