Author + information
- Anthony N. DeMaria, MD, MACC, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology⁎ ()
- ↵⁎Address correspondence to:
Dr. Anthony N. DeMaria, Editor-in-Chief, Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 3655 Nobel Drive, Suite 630, San Diego, California 92122
As everyone surely knows by now, Southern California, and San Diego in particular, were recently engulfed in massively destructive wild fires. Although my family was spared any loss, and in fact did not have to evacuate our home, many of our friends and colleagues were not so fortunate. The fires not only destroyed lives and property, but created a panoply of emotions and a variety of experiences. This Editor’s Page deals with my reflections on having lived through this natural disaster.
By chance, my wife and I were in the desert town of Palm Springs on the day the fires began, so we had to pass over the mountains and through the fires to return home. We had been warned that there would be strong winds, but we were totally unprepared for the fires. The smoke and ashes rose from the hills in huge black plumes that darkened the skies, creating a scene that might be expected during an eclipse. In some stretches, the road was so immersed in smoke and ash that it was like driving into a fog bank with minimal visibility. Subsequently, we saw walls of flames encompassing entire hills. The magnitude of the disturbance was greater than anything I had ever experienced.
As physicians we strive to understand nature and attempt to control it, or at least alter its behavior. Natural disasters, such as these wild fires, show our hubris in this regard. There is no question that we have made remarkable progress in science and medicine. We are justifiably proud of our ability to diagnose and treat disease. However, in the greater scheme of things, we are largely powerless to control the forces of nature. It is humbling to realize that, for all the effort we spend on saving one life, a natural disaster can claim many in a very short time.
Over the next day the winds relentlessly spread the fires from the hills toward the city. As we sat at home watching the nonstop news coverage, we learned that the fires might march to the ocean and that we might have to evacuate our home. There was, of course, the anxiety of knowing that we were dealing with something we had almost no control over. Of perhaps greater interest was the issue of what we would pack and take if we had to evacuate. Having been married for 40 years and lived in our house for 15, how should we prioritize the car full of belongings we could save from the threat of fire? It goes without saying, of course, that my computer was at the top of the list. Next were family pictures, they would be irreplaceable; and we would need insurance and legal documents. As we walked around the house we considered art, mementos, gifts, special clothes (our daughter’s wedding dress), a lifetime of “stuff” with abundant memories. What about old slides dating back to the 1970s…a copy of a book personally given and signed by Francis Crick? As you might imagine, we encountered some difficult choices. In the end, however, we concluded, as did others whose houses actually burned down with all their belongings, that these were just things. Memories would remain and new things would be acquired.
As horrific scenes appeared on the television, one could not help but be impressed by the enormous bravery and stamina of the fire fighters. As cars lined up to vacate threatened neighborhoods, fire trucks raced in. They faced walls of flames with only a water hose, and they did this not only to save lives, but also to save property and possessions such as those previously described. Although the fires destroyed several thousand homes and structures, only seven lives were lost. I have often thought that the ability to restore health or prolong life made medicine special. It is obvious that numerous other callings share that ability. In fact, I suspect that the fire fighters and other first responders had the opportunity to save more lives in those days than most physicians do in a year.
Another aspect that made an incredible impression on me during the fires was the outpouring of compassion for those who were affected. People opened up their homes to those displaced, often to strangers. At central evacuation sites, the number of volunteers and amount of donations was often so great that calls went out to stop. Even among those displaced, the sharing seemed genuine and heartwarming. This natural disaster seemed to bring out the best in people and evidenced the basic nobility of human nature. The behavior witnessed in San Diego during the wild fires stands in stark contrast to that observed in war zones. Far from trying to kill each other, every effort was made to give comfort and to relieve distress. There is no question that there are times when self defense is necessary. However, one wonders how a people, whose basic instincts are so humanitarian, find themselves in military conflicts.
Finally, I must comment on the resolve that was exhibited by those with major losses in the fires. Most individuals whose homes and possessions were totally destroyed by flames indicated that they would just start over and make the best of it. Almost no rancor, anger, or self pity was seen. Even when a home stood in ashes between two others that were not touched, the owners took the capriciousness in stride. I must admit, I found this pretty inspiring. Everyone encounters setbacks in life, in health, and otherwise. This attitude of resolve, to take things in stride and start over again, would seem to be the perfect response to any setback.
The majority of fires are contained now, and the evacuations have nearly all been lifted. The schools are reopened and, for most, life is getting back to normal. I hope I am permitted to take pride in the fact that the JACCeditorial office remained open throughout the fires, and that the weekly meetings of all JACCjournals were held. This accomplishment will stay with me for a long time, as will the melancholy of deciding which possessions to take in an evacuation and which to leave behind. However, what I will remember most about the wild fire disaster will be the human behavior I witnessed. The bravery, compassion, and resolve of those afflicted, and those who came to their aid, was extraordinary. It was a testimony to the basic goodness of mankind, and a great example for physicians and non-physicians as well.
- American College of Cardiology Foundation