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Adam Davis: remembering a Gatlinburg wildfire rescue, one year later

Adam Davis, care coordinator with the CHOICES program at BlueCross, remembers exactly where he was and what he was doing on the night of November 28, 2016.

“I had the local news on in the background while working on case documentation,” Adam says. “That’s when I saw the story about the wildfires approaching the Gatlinburg area.”

The report was particularly troubling for Adam, who, in his role as a CHOICES care coordinator, provides long-term services and support for members whose health conditions confine them to their homes or a nursing facility. Many members in his Sevier County coverage area lived in the direct path of the blaze.

One member in particular – a disabled woman who lived with her husband in the heart of Gatlinburg – was at the epicenter of the raging fires.

Man on a mission

Adam immediately began reaching out to all of his members by phone, as did his colleague Alison Fox.

“We saw the news at the same time and contacted each other first – that’s how in sync we are as a team,” Adam says.

Eventually, all members were accounted for, save for the homebound member in Gatlinburg.

“I was frantically trying to reach her,” Adam says. “I couldn’t get through to her family, lines were down everywhere, and at that point emergency response wasn’t answering. They weren’t letting anyone into the area. Fortunately, Alison had some connections from her time as a dispatcher and was able to request that someone get to this member’s house and check on her.”

Adam Davis BlueCross Pinnacle award
Adam Davis, CHOICES care coordinator seen here with BlueCross CEO JD Hickey, was recognized earlier this year with the BlueCross Pinnacle Peace of Mind award for his rescue efforts during the Gatlinburg wildfires.

What followed around 11 p.m. that night was a dramatic rescue – one that Adam wouldn’t receive the details of until the following morning. A police officer, navigating downed power lines and patchy fires while zooming up Gatlinburg back roads in his cruiser, reached the member’s house as surrounding structures were ablaze.

Using a Hoyer lift, he was able to quickly evacuate the member and her husband, getting them into his cruiser. The encroaching flames were practically on top of them at that point, with thick, black smoke making it difficult to breathe and communicate. Time was of the essence – the officer even sped up to drive directly over a burning fallen tree during the escape.

“It was a very difficult time,” Adam says. “Throughout the night, we never knew if she was OK. I started making calls again first thing the next morning and learned this member had made it to a shelter in Gatlinburg.”

While Adam breathed a sigh of relief at his member’s safety, in many ways his work was just beginning. 

“There was still danger for those who had respiratory issues, as the entire town was filled with smoke,” Adam says. “Plus, this member had left everything behind – she needed her medications, she needed her oxygen, she needed a bed. She was able to stay with her daughter in Blount County, but Alison and I spent all day on the phone with pharmacists and medical equipment companies to make sure she had everything she needed delivered.”

Though this member’s care may have been Adam’s responsibility, resolving her difficult situation was truly a team effort.

Adam Davis BlueCross Chimney Top
Chimney Top Trail in Great Smoky Mountains National Park is one Adam’s favorite hikes. The trailhead was closed for a time following last year’s wildfires.

“What care coordinators like Adam and Alison do on a daily basis is incredible, but it’s not typically life-or-death situations,” says Sara Shular, CHOICES care coordinator manager. “I truly believe that if they hadn’t stayed on top of everything that was happening, we would have had a different outcome.”

Embracing ‘the unknown’

Working toward positive outcomes for others has been the driving force in Adam’s nearly 20-year career. He was certified as a nursing assistant in 1999 while working at a nursing home. From there he worked as a phlebotomist before becoming a registered nurse, first spending three years in a nursing facility, then doing dialysis and triage before joining BlueCross in 2014.

While there is no typical day for a care coordinator, Adam could find himself:

  • Visiting the homes or nursing homes of members in his area
  • Completing documentation of visits
  • Making calls to check on every member within every 30 days
  • Taking calls from providers or Adult Protective Services
  • Getting up to speed on new members

Though Adam has always loved the patient interaction aspect of his work, he admits that he was initially “scared to death” when it came to serving the senior population.

The reason? “The unknown.”

“When you become a caregiver, you first have to analyze yourself,” Adam says.  “You have to ensure you’re comfortable with handling the less-than-comfortable aspects of the job. And I initially wasn’t sure I could do that. But I started doing it and slowly realized I was actually good at it. The fear went away.”

“I love working with the older population because they have a story to tell.”

At the heart of these interactions is trust. Adam finds that the best way to build trusting relationships with his members is to start with a series of simple questions about how they go about their daily lives. He references the member he helped through the wildfire – on his first day in her home, just by asking about her routine, he was able to determine that the one thing she really wanted to do was take a shower. Adam arranged for a home modifier to install a shower she could use.

Adam Davis BlueCross Gatlinburg
Adam in Gatlinburg with daughters Alyssa and Ava

“It was anything she couldn’t have – I just don’t think anyone had really dug around to determine what she might enjoy having,” he says. “To truly be an advocate for someone’s care, ongoing communication and accessibility are essential. If my members call me, text me or email me, I respond in whichever form they prefer. I do what’s best for them.”

Away from the wheel

When not connecting with members in the community or following up with providers regarding their care, Adam enjoys spending time with his daughters, Alyssa, 16, an aspiring singer and music teacher, and Ava, 12, a cheerleader who hopes to become a physical therapist. An avid hiker, Adam takes advantage of any opportunity to be outdoors.

“In my free time, I love to do anything that keeps me out of my car,” Adam says with a laugh. “I definitely don’t want to drive anywhere, because I’m always in the car for work.”

“I bought a Honda Accord hybrid in 2015, and it already has 79,000 miles on it.”

Learning from the past

Today, a year removed from the Gatlinburg wildfires – the deadliest in the eastern U.S. since 1947 – Adam’s member is doing well, though he no longer coordinates her care. Adam has since moved to the Knoxville area, and in a fortuitous twist, Alison Fox, his team member who joined the rescue efforts, now sees her.

“She’s back home, and she’s glad to be back,” Adam says. “She stayed with her daughter for about three months. She was adamant about not going into a nursing home. I told her she didn’t have to, and we worked it out. I still check in on her myself from time to time.”

Adam brushes off any praise of his heroism.

“As a team, we all care greatly about our members,” he says. “And to be honest, this has been an educational experience. Before 2016, I never thought about a wildfire in this area. Now BlueCross has disaster plans for just such an emergency that we share with all members.”

About Jesse Thompson, Principal Communications Specialist

A photo of the authorJesse joined the BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee corporate communications team in 2017. A Chattanooga native, he has more than 15 years’ experience in content creation, management, and strategy for consumer audiences, including a six-year stint in health care marketing.

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