Edmonton

Hospital heroes get patients to safety during Fort McMurray fire

The staff at the hospital which was evacuated during the Fort McMurray fire have been telling the extraordinary story of the heroes who helped get patients to safety.

17 buses took 105 patients to safety in dramatic evacuation

The Northern Lights Health Facility in Fort McMurray can be seen in this photo as flames shoot into the sky. (Trevor Wilson/CBC)

The staff at the hospital which was evacuated during the Fort McMurray fire have been telling the extraordinary story of the heroes who helped get patients to safety.

They were the doctors, nurses, managers, and maintenance and security staff at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre who chose to stay with those in need.

They did this even though many had no idea where their own loved ones were as the devastating fire began to threaten their city.

"There were many many heroes among us," said Pam Lund, the manager of the Emergency Department and the Intensive Care Unit.

Pam Lund, the emergency department and intensive care unit manager for the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre.

Lund said once it became clear the hospital would need to be evacuated, the staff on shift put aside their own personal lives and just focused on trying to get the patients out.

"A lot of our nurses had internal struggles because they had children whose areas were being evacuated and who were in school and whose husbands were working out at the plant sites an hour away," said Lund.

She added that there were also a lot of nurses worried about their husbands and boyfriends actually fighting the fire.

Monique Janes, the director of patient care, said her 14-year-old daughter called her as things were unfolding, telling her she wanted to come home from school.

'Mommy is busy at the hospital'

Janes whose 12-year-old son was also in school tried to tell her daughter to stay cool.

"I couldn't leave the hospital and I was trying to keep them calm and the schools went in lockdown so she couldn't get out and I said it's 'Ok Dad is going to take care of you and you'll be fine Mommy is busy at the hospital,' " said Janes .

She said that she then called up her husband and told him to get both of her children out of school.

Janes said many of the staff were going through their own internal struggles but instinct kicked in as the operation to evacuate 105 patients at the hospital started.

Monique Janes, the director of patient care at the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, said wouldn't let herself leave until all the patients were evacuated.

17 buses took a total of 105 patients to safety

The first priority she said was to get the continuing care patients, many of whom are wheelchair bound, onto the main floor just to be ready to leave quickly, even before an evacuation order had been declared.

Seventeen buses were called in to move the patients north of Fort McMurray.

Medical staff made sure that each patient had their medical charts and medications with them as they prepared to leave.

'There was no panic whatsoever'

There were also nine babies in the maternity ward who had to be moved. But in spite of a situation that must have been scary for their parents there was no sign of fear in the little ones.

"The babies didn't cry," said Janes.

She added that the reaction of all the patients was equally amazing.

"Not one person complained or cried. I never saw anybody have a negative thing to say, there was no panic with them whatsoever," said Pam Lund. 

After travelling for about seven hours to Suncor's Firebag facility the patients were moved to a hangar where a triage centre was set up. Arrangements were then made to fly everyone to hospitals in Edmonton.

David Matear, senior operating director of the Northern Lights Regional Health Centre, said he was proud of the all the staff.

David Matear, the senior operating director at the hospital, said he was proud of the all the staff at the hospital.

"The leadership and the staff pulled together to do whatever was required," said Matear.

He said as far as he knows his own home is not damaged by fire. Both Janes and Lund think their homes are still standing, but they say some staff already knows they have lost everything.

Unclear when the hospital can re-open or which staff will return

Lund said some of those staff will not come back to work.

She said she's already accepted some resignation letters from staff who have decided to move back to other parts of the country to be with their families.

The hospital was not damaged by flames, but it's still unclear when it will be ready to operate again.

Even though some staff have already decided to leave, others are desperate to get back to their jobs.

"Our staff from emergency and ICU, they're chomping at the bit to get back to work, they want to do something they're feeling helpless and we're hoping to work towards getting them back to work as soon as possible," said Lund.

gareth.hampshire@cbc.ca

@cbcgareth