Three days after the fire that evicted more than 15 doctors and providers, Keith Kappes’ 34 years as a dentist lay scattered in moving boxes and plastic tubs.
Tooth brushes, drill bits, a nitrous oxide cart and 31 boxes of paper records spilled from a storage unit next to railroad tracks. In a baseball cap, UCLA T-shirt and jeans, Kappes picked through the inventory — some of it wet, some dusted with soot — trying to figure out his next step.
“There’s nothing we can’t work through, but it’s going to take hours and hours and days and days,” Kappes said. “I feel like my head’s like ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
The April 13 fire gutted the second floor of the Channel Islands Medical Center at West Gonzales Road and Lantana Street in Oxnard. The roof of the 40-year-old building slid to the ground like an avalanche. The first floor flooded.
Dentists, physicians and their employees watched as fire and water consumed their working lives. Some cried. Others shot video. A construction official involved in the building’s recovery said it will be uninhabitable for at least a year.
In the days that followed, doctors scrambled for temporary offices. They salvaged records and worried about laws designed to protect patient privacy. They posted handmade signs in front of mounds of burned debris, alerting patients of their limbo.
THE DAY AFTER
Police tape blocked the driveway. Tenants sat in the parking lot, waiting for a chance to salvage computers and soggy X-rays. Once inside, they used smartphones to navigate pitch-black hallways and offices transformed into caves, water dripping from the ceiling.
Victor Lopez came upon this scene when he drove to the medical plaza Monday afternoon for his doctor’s appointment. Two days earlier, Dr. Josephine Soliz had drained an abscess on his left leg. Her second-floor office no longer existed.
Lopez lives in Sylmar and commutes to his job as a supervisor at Haas Automation in Oxnard. He knew nothing of the fire. But he understood his wound could become infected without treatment.
Parked in front of the building, he called the clinic, his health insurer and then started working his way through a list of urgent care centers.
In the middle of the search, his cellphone rang. It was Dr. Soliz.
“She asked me if I didn’t mind getting treated in a parking lot,” he said.
They met in front of a Walgreens. Using Q-tips and packing bought at the drugstore, Soliz changed the dressing on his wound in the back of his sport utility vehicle.
They repeated the scene on Tuesday. In the meantime, administrators at St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Oxnard contacted Soliz and other physicians in the burned building. They offered to lease out space immediately in the medical plaza adjacent to the hospital.
“They lost their office. They have no equipment. They lost everything,” said St. John’s CEO Laurie Harting, citing the thousands of patients affected. “We did not want those patients to go without care.”
On Wednesday, Soliz and her partners moved into an office still barren of furniture. Employees sat on counters as they called patients to tell them of the fire.
When Lopez showed up at the end of the day to have his wound dressed, he focused not on the new office but on the doctor willing to treat him in a parking lot.
“That’s the most amazing thing,” he said. “She could have sent me to an urgent care. She’s got all my respect.”
of Soliz and her Rose Ave. Family Medical Group were stored on a backup disk in a fire-safe box in a metal filing cabinet. It survived. Others had backed up files on computers off site.
Still, the day after the fire, Oxnard firefighters hauled loads of paper records out of the burned building. They wanted to make sure documents stayed in the possession of doctors because of the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act. The federal law carries fines and penalties for exposing a patient’s confidential information.
Doctors worried about the law, too, although a UCLA expert said regulations requiring backups and disaster plans are aimed primarily at electronic records.
Dr. Jeffrey J. Stein stowed his paper records in blue boxes in a locked garage that soon smelled like a barbecue pit. Stein is a Michigan-raised dentist who met his wife when he moved his practice into the Oxnard medical office complex 17 years ago.
As he watched the fire on April 13, firefighters doused the second floor. It seemed as if the water was aimed exactly where he keeps the computer system that allows him to access all of his patient records.
Somehow, the server survived. Stein still needs new hardware to set up a permanent practice. But he can see his records.
There are other hurdles. Stein and his staff called patients. They set up referral systems for dental emergencies. They talked to information technology specialists, scrambled to replicate tax data destroyed in the fire, bought a laptop and negotiated with insurance adjusters.
“It’s literally like I’m a juggler and I have all of these balls in the air,” Stein said.
Progress was made. An insurance check for property damage could arrive in several days. Stein found office space just two blocks from the burned building. His practice could be up and running in the next week.
It’s the kind of move he thinks he should have made long ago but never did until there were no other choices.
“I see God pointing his finger in one direction for me,” he said. “I think it was probably pointed for a long time, but I was too stubborn or stupid to see it.”
The records of about 10,000 patients under the care
A fence barricaded the burned building. Security guards kept watch day and night. Tenants weren’t allowed in the building because of safety concerns.
Oxnard Fire Department officials said the blaze’s cause was still being investigated but did not appear to be suspicious.
“It’s leaning toward accidental,” said Battalion Chief Kevin Schroepfer.
It’s too soon to know if the structure is totaled, said Chris Prouse of ASR Construction, the Oxnard company dealing with the fire’s aftermath. Even if some of the steel framework survived, reconstruction could take 18 months or more.
By Tom Kisken, Ventura County Star, Calif.
April 20–FROM THE FIRE