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.
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.
“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.”
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.
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.”
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.
“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.