Teamwork in the Face of Disaster

Patient Care Manager Becky Sawyers with the Caris Sevierville office recounts the Gatlinburg forest fire:

The morning of November 28 started like any other Monday morning for our Caris team in Sevierville, Tennessee. Before our daily morning meeting, we talked about our weekend, sports and the wildfire burning in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. We wondered which trails would be affected and how long it would be before the fire would be put out. Little did we know that by that evening we would be personally affected in so many ways by a fire that, as of Monday morning, was contained to the park.

Early that afternoon we were alerted that some residents in Gatlinburg were being evacuated as a precaution. We had only one patient in the area. He lived several miles from the park and, while I believed he was safe, I gave him a call to check on him. He reported he was fine—and safe—and definitely not being evacuated. I asked him to keep his TV on for any alerts and he laughed a little, saying he would but that I should not worry so much.

By now the afternoon sky had turned dark with a red tint. Ash was seen floating around near our office and smoke was filling the air around Pigeon Forge and Sevierville. Staff members commented on how weird the sky looked and complained of the smoke and ash. The wind was picking up.

Before leaving the office at 5:00 pm, I called our patient in Gatlinburg to check on him again. He reported that he continued to be fine and was not being evacuated. He said he had been told that the fires were still confined to the park and that people from the upper end of Gatlinburg were being evacuated—but only because of the smoke.

I arrived home to find that we had lost power. After dinner we turned on our scanner for information about the power outage. We immediately heard a report that the fire was on the road to our home. My husband opened the blinds behind us to see if he could see flashing lights from fire trucks. What we saw will be forever etched in our memory. The fire was raging in the woods and homes beside our house. We knew we had to get out immediately. I grabbed our indoor pets and my husband went out to gather our outdoor pets. A man approached our house and screamed, “Get out now!” My husband and I, with pets in tow, took off in separate vehicles. But approximately a half mile from our home we found our route blocked by a fallen tree. I would spend the next 90 minutes waiting as my husband and neighbors attempted to remove the tree and watching in my rear view mirror as homes burned.

At the same time, the crisis was now affecting some of our patients. Sandi Klontz, the Nurse on Call took the first call at 8:54 pm. Two patients, a husband and wife, were in immediate danger. They could see the fire and needed to be evacuated. The wife was bedbound; she had not been out of bed for three years. Sandi later would talk about the fear she felt and how she cried, but right then her nurse’s instincts and training kicked in. She started a group in PerfectServe (PerfectServe is a HIPAA-compliant app Caris care teams use to communicate quickly, effectively and securely) with Social Worker Jennifer Smith, Sevierville Administrator Robin Kountz and myself]. Duties were delegated. Jennifer called for immediate ambulance transport for the two patients to the home of their daughter. I called other patients near the multiple fires that were now burning across the area. Robin coordinated communications and ensured necessary decisions were made promptly. The last PerfectServe message for the night, at 11:47 pm, reported all patients were safe, had what they needed and would be called again in the morning.

As a result of the fires, the landscape around Gatlinburg and Sevierville will be forever changed—as will the Sevierville team. In the months to come we will mourn the loss of friends and cherished possessions, we will volunteer our time to help our neighbors rebuild, we will talk about how Gatlinburg used to look and we will remember the night our team and a phone app worked so closely and efficiently to protect “our people.”