The call to help can come at the unlikeliest times, but that never stops a Community Health Center from stepping forward. This was the case in eastern Tennessee, where last week a massive blaze forced thousands from their homes and claimed 14 lives. Cherokee Health Systems, which cares for over 65,000 residents who live in the affected area, swung into action. In a dispatch to colleagues and friends in the health center community, Dennis Freeman, CEO of Cherokee Health Systems, describes what happened:
“The flames were still raging across our beloved Smoky Mountains when Julia Pearce, Cherokee’s Regional Vice President, leapt into action. Julia, always at the ready to advocate for those in need, began to organize our efforts to reach out and care for the residents and vacationers whose lives would be forever impacted by the wildfires. Within a matter of hours Cherokee staff began calling, emailing texting. ‘What can I do to help?” Shouldn’t we be on site?’
Whipped by the near hurricane force winds the fire took a greater toll than initially anticipated. Hundreds of homes burned to the ground, 14 people lost their lives and a few still remain missing. It will be months before some businesses re-open. There will be a lingering financial impact on many families for many years. Of greater significance, the emotional forces of trauma will affect the health and well-being of some for the rest of their lives.
As soon as the Gatlinburg shelter opened for the evacuees and those suddenly homeless, Cherokee staff were there. We have been on site every day since and will be until everyone finds a place to go. Matt Tillery, Cherokee’s Director of Community Services, coordinates these activities and is in active collaboration with the Red Cross, the local hospital and other health and human service agencies. Matt reports our assistance has been welcomed. In a recent email Matt wrote, ‘I’m inspired by the resiliency and tenacity of the survivors just as much as I am by the compassion and willingness of our Cherokee team members.’
Gatlinburg Strong. Tennessee Tough.”
Freeman also thanked the host of volunteer interpreters and therapists on his staff who came forward to help traumatized residents on the ground.
“The quick response to the wildfires by Cherokee Health Systems very clearly demonstrates the vital role that Community Health Centers play in their communities,” said Kathy Wood-Dobbins, CEO of the Tennessee Primary Care Association. “Our health centers impact the lives of individuals and communities every day, both within their clinics and beyond their walls. I am proud that we are willing and ready to serve our neighbors any time there’s a need.”