In fire amid pandemic, Wisconsin eldercare workers rush to the rescue

September Online

Sept. 1, 2020

When Sondra Norder got the call that a nearby residential care facility was on fire and the patients who had been evacuated needed other accommodations, she issued a call of her own to her staff at St. Paul Elder Services in Kaukauna, Wisconsin.


"We put out an emergency alert and said that a colleague facility had a major fire, they needed to transfer a bunch of residents and anybody who was available please report to duty," recalled Norder, president and chief executive of St. Paul, part of the Franciscan Sisters of Christian Charity Sponsored Ministries. "We had 75 off-duty staff members show up to get these residents admitted and settled and comfortable."

St. Paul Elder Services was one of three facilities that took in the 51 residents displaced by the fire June 18 at Oakridge Gardens Nursing Center in Menasha. Oakridge Gardens is a private facility with short-term rehab, memory care, assisted living and skilled nursing care. St. Paul offers assisting living and skilled nursing care in Kaukauna. The two are about 8 miles apart.

Smoke smolders from a fire on June 18 that caused heavy damage to the roof of the Oakridge Gardens Nursing Center in Menasha, Wisconsin, and required the relocation of all 51 residents. St. Paul Elder Services in nearby Kaukauna made special accommodations to take in 28 of them.
Courtesy of Fox Crossing Fire Department

At the time, St. Paul had only 12 open beds among the 129 it is licensed to have. But Norder and her staff brought some beds out of storage and, with permission from state regulators, turned some of St. Paul's private rooms into semi-private ones. In the end, St. Paul rehoused 28 residents within a matter of hours.

"We're talking about people that literally had nowhere else to go, who have needs that can only be met by trained and skilled professionals," Norder said.

The willingness of her staff to jump in to help in an emergency was no surprise to Norder. She said she knows them to be a dedicated group. But the fact that the fire came amid another broader emergency – the coronavirus pandemic – made their quick action all the more laudable.

"It's a wonderful thing to know that when there's a need our team is going to show up and they're going to show up in droves," Norder said.

The workers who transported the residents had to follow best pandemic care practices to the extent possible in keeping the patients cohorted and isolated from the crowd of hundreds of emergency responders, relatives and onlookers who gathered at the fire scene. Because many precautions such as masking and social distancing were overlooked among the crowd, the fire had the potential to be a super spreader event. Afterward, just as there were no fire injuries, subsequent rounds of testing of residents and care providers found no cases of COVID-19 related to the event.

Michael Schanke, president and owner of Oakridge Gardens, said his facility had practiced and planned for an emergency like the fire, but it was still a huge relief to see things fall in place when needed. "It is a once-in-a-lifetime thing," Schanke said of the fire. "And it's an extraordinary experience to see everyone pitch in."

Schanke said the fire heavily damaged his facility's roof. An investigation of its cause continued into mid-August. While smoke and water from the firefight left some minor damage, the fire itself spared the living areas. He expects to have residents return by the end of the year and the repairs completed in mid-2021.

Norder said St. Paul was happy to offer a home to those displaced from Oakridge Gardens for as long as needed. Nineteen of them were still in residence in late August and several Oakridge Gardens' staffers were temporarily assigned to St. Paul.

"Our exact mission statement is that we're a Catholic Franciscan-sponsored community dedicated to enriching the life experience," she said. "How much more could we enrich somebody's life than by giving them a roof over their heads and a place where they can feel safe and secure?"


Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.

Copyright © 2020 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.