Professionals, neighbors rally in fire

By Vicki Rackner

Island Forum

What would you do if your house went up in flames? This question skipped through my thoughts when I was a surgical resident in the Harborview Burn Center. While helping care for burn patients under the direction of world-class doctors I learned what fires do to bodies. Two weeks ago I learned from personal experience what fires do to lives.

A malfunction of my dryer lead to a fire that quickly consumed the old wood of my attic. Smoke and soot enveloped the contents of the house that had not burned. My charred and melted car, parked a few yards from the dryer, demonstrated the power of the heat. I escaped unharmed.

Here's what I have learned so far in this journey.

As the Yiddish expression goes, ``We plan, God laughs.'' I thought I did everything right to prevent a house fire. I got routine maintenance on my boiler that included cleaning of my dryer vents. I had smoke alarms and a carbon monoxide detector and fire extinguishers which successfully squelched the flames I could see. Yet, a malfunctioning switch in the dryer changed my life in a heartbeat.

Many express concerns about the chaos that accompanies a tragic fire like this. I see many blessings. I could have put the clothes in the dryer and gone to sleep as I do so many times, most likely resulting in my own death. My son was not in the house at the time of the fire. I'm not a patient in the burn unit. Sure, I lost many things that were dear, like my son's truck collection I hoped my grandchildren would play with one day. Some precious items, like my son's baby book survived.

I feel blessed by the professionals who managed the fire. The police woman, first on the scene, took charge with calm competency. She called family members and took my dog and me to my refuge for the night, although my son was concerned that our pet rode in the back of the squad car ``like a criminal.'' The brave men of the Mercer Island Fire Department who responded to my 911 call risked their lives to put out this fire. I won't offer names, because tradition holds that firefighters named in the media buy ice cream for the team, and I would not want to subject them to the cardiovascular risk.

While these firefighters are tough on the outside, they treated me with gentle compassion.

After I dropped off my dog and returned to my charred house in a borrowed car, the firefighters placed my elderly cat in my arms. They found her hiding in the closet and gave her oxygen. When I said she seemed disoriented, the fire chief took us to the emergency vet clinic. I returned to my house after a sleepless night in a borrowed coat over borrowed jammies and the firefighter who stayed at the house all night helped me scoop my dying goldfish into clean water.

I feel blessed to have chosen a good insurance company with excellent coverage. My take-charge claims adjustor has assembled an extraordinary team to help me rebuild my life. The head of the restoration team said, ``Think of me as your wedding planner.'' Right now, two weeks after the fire, I sit in my furnished rental house with Internet access and a land phone line.

I feel blessed to be part of the Mercer Island community. I left the house shoeless on the rainy night of the fire, and shoes and a coat and a leash magically appeared from caring neighbors. I have been the recipient of untold acts of kindness, big and small, that have touched my heart.

What do you do when your house goes up in flames? I recognize the inherent vulnerability of life and mourn many losses. And I celebrate the many blessings. I observe that the very best in people comes out at the very worst of times. I experience the power of a community to support healing from a life-altering event such as this. I remind myself that the most important thing in life, the caring connections to others, cannot be consumed in flames.

Vicki Rackner, M.D., is a Mercer Island resident. She writes a monthly health column for the Reporter.

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