In the Media

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GUERNEVILLE — Russian River floodwaters receded from all but the lowest-lying areas Friday, pulling the river’s watery curtain out of homes and away from most surface streets, giving residents and merchants a clearer look at the extensive damage and sprawling cleanup to come.
Norma Pichardo, 38, climbed the mud-slickened spiral staircase leading to her family’s second-floor apartment on Sycamore Court. Across the courtyard, the torrent of runoff seemed to have moved through the first floor garage of Fife Creek Commons without causing major damage. Not so among about a half-dozen nearby homes like hers clustered on lower land.
 
Pichardo unlocked the door and found her home of 10 years upended, belongings tossed about as if by intruders. A shelf lay on its side in the middle of the kitchen. Chairs were toppled, soaked clothes were everywhere. All that stood or sat below waist level was covered in a film of mud.
 
Pichardo took a garbage bag out of her pocket and began filling it with pictures hanging on the wall: One child’s soccer team portrait; another’s Guerneville School class picture; smiling faces of her three kids in homemade Christmas frames.
“It’s their home,” Pichardo said, full of emotion.
 
The Russian River dropped below the 32-foot flood level after 11 a.m. Friday, making roads that had become waterways passable again. Authorities lifted roadblocks for residents and business people just after noon, and for the first time in days people who evacuated, as well as those who rode out the storm in their houses, surveyed communities that had not seen this scale of disaster in a quarter century.
 
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Jared Award

On a typical workday in Guerneville, family doctor Jared Garrison-Jakel attends to patients who are often dealing with more than just an ailment medicine can cure. His patients at the Russian River Health Center include those who do not have a permanent home, are struggling with substance abuse or living with some other mental health disorder — all of which make scheduling a doctor’s appointment a difficult or even impossible task.

“If you don’t know where you are sleeping tonight, making an appointment two or three weeks in advance doesn’t work,” he said. “We need immediacy.”

With this challenge in mind, Garrison-Jakel, of Forestville, implemented a new model for West County Health Centers (WCHC) to see un-housed patients on the same day they schedule the appointment. The new system has proven to be a success, serving on average five un-housed patients a day.

“It’s always been my goal as a family doctor to meet the needs of the community,” Garrison-Jakel said.

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Resiliency is defined as the ability to overcome and bounce back from challenges of all kinds- traumatic events, tragedy, loss, personal crises and regular life problems. 

The October North Bay fires and their aftermath present many challenges to the residents of Sonoma County, including how to be resilient in the face of so much widespread devastation.

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Private health networks, like West County Health Centers, have also seen an increase in cases of depression and anxiety and other chronic illnesses, officials said.  The issues have been exacerbated by how far from normal many victims lives have veered.  Many have seen their churches, jobs, and children’s school – thier daily rhythms – disrupted.

"People are more susceptible to trauma because they don’t have their normal community support," said Jason Dunningham, medical director of West County Health Centers, which provides services from several locations.  "Initially we had this community coming together, and it was actually life-giving.  They were supporting one another.  We aren’t putting the same attention on those feelings as we did the first two weeks."

Cunningham said his staff compared state maps of fire damage to maps of where existing patients live, in order to locate high-risk victims who might need extra support.  Health workers called those people in the weeks after the fires to check in and offer resources, everything from help with FEMA applications to therapy referrals.

"We know these people," Cunningham said.  "We want to hear how they’re doing and hear their story.  It’s a familiar voice to connect with.  That social support is important so they don’t try to self-medicate with things like alcohol."

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It’s important to check in with kids even if they’re not asking questions, said Marian Pena, the behavioral health director at West County Health Centers in Sonoma County, where recent fires destroyed thousands of homes and killed more than 20 people. Some children will develop anxiety because they’re stressed and don’t have an outlet for that stress.

“A lot of parents feel like if they don’t ever talk to their kids about this, it’s out of sight out of mind,” she said.

But that’s not true. Children are thinking about what’s happening around them, whether or not they ask their parents about it. And it’s important for parents to provide the most accurate information, and reassure children that they are safe.

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The aftermath of the fire presented countless challenges for the rest of the healthcare system.

Many residents struggled to breathe because of the smoky air.  Tens of thousands of people were evacuated into schools and fairgrounds across the region.

“Each shelter had to figure out how do you manage these almost MASH-unit trauma centers,” said Jason Cunningham, chief medical officer for the West County Health Centers.

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Mary Szecsey Cheif Executive Officer for West County Health Centers, talks with Roland Jacopetti on KRCB’s Sonoma Spotlight about the Capital Campaign to rebuild the new Russian River Health & Wellness Center.

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 West County Health Centers (WCHC) has raised $1.84 million towards a goal of $4.2 million for a new Russian River Health Center.

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Much good has happened since flames destroyed the community health center in the heart of Guerneville the day sfter Christmas 2015, and also since then the ranks of people in need of quality, affordable, medical care have grown. 

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 Fund raising for Guerneville’s new $10.5 million Russian River Health & Wellness Center planned for First Street, next door to the Guerneville Safeway, kicks off with a capital campaign launch event on Aug. 18.

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