Dr. Heather Furnas is a plastic surgeon, based in Santa Rosa, California, working in a practice she co-founded with her husband. She obtained undergraduate and graduate degrees from Stanford University before completing her medical degree at UCLA [University of California, Los Angeles] School of Medicine, returning to Stanford for a six-year plastic surgery residency, and then in 1990 was appointed to the plastic surgery faculty at Harvard Medical School in Boston. Heather takes her technical skills abroad to serve the needs of children with birth defects in Peru, Honduras, Western Samoa, the Philippines, and El Salvador.
“…there will be a day when I have a new home, and I will look back on this time from the perspective of a woman who once lost all but who continued to work, to paint, to write, and to appreciate life…”
My father, my hero
After seeing my father, a plastic surgeon, operate in the bush hospitals in Kenya, I knew I wanted to be a plastic surgeon, just like him. From Stanford, where I got my undergraduate degree, I went to UCLA Medical School, and then I returned to Stanford for my plastic surgery training.
My first position was at the Beth Israel Hospital in Boston, where I was on the clinical faculty at Harvard Medical School. From there I returned to California, where my plastic surgeon husband, Dr. Paco Canales, and I opened up a private practice in Santa Rosa, and that’s where we raised our two children, Diego and Siena.
The day life changed
Santa Rosa is a jewel of a city nestled in the hills of the California Wine Country. Its beauty arises from the constant sunshine, the magnificent redwoods, and the golden rolling hills dappled with oak trees. On 9th October 2017, after a summer of unprecedented desiccating heat, winds blew at 60 miles an hour, downing power lines and consuming the natural beauty that flames recognised only as fuel in the most catastrophic fire in Californian history.
My husband, Paco, and I were attending a conference in Orlando, Florida. In the wee hours of that Monday, one of our nurses texted us that our house was probably gone. A follow-up photo confirmed it was levelled to the ground. My heart stopped with regret. If only I’d been there, I could have salvaged my beloved paintings, my 35 journals, and the boxes of unscanned photos and videos of my children. But then I discovered that our absence was our greatest gift.
The city had never sent out a warning, and our friends barely escaped with their lives, driving through a forest of flames. Ultimately, five of the 24 who died in Santa Rosa succumbed because there was a loss of power, and they couldn’t get their car out of the garage. The fire was traveling like a blowtorch, and it was too fast to outrun.
Comfort among friends
Being surrounded by friends at the Orlando conference was like falling into a safety net. I had a lecture to deliver the next day, giving me something to focus on. Work was familiar and reassuring, and I dreaded returning to what was once home.
During the conference in Orlando, a patient of my father’s, Barbara Quayle, had just gotten a Patient of Courage Award from the American Society of Plastic Surgeons. Forty years before, she had suffered massive burns as a passenger in a car that had exploded in a collision. Her face, along much of her body, was badly burned. She recovered to live a life of purpose, helping other burns victims.
On 7th October I’d escorted my father on stage so he could accompany his patient, and now she was my inspiration. 9th October was the day that ended the life I’d had before the fire and marked the beginning of my life after the fire. Barbara had such a day that divided her life before and after her burn. As I thought of all that she’d done, first recovering herself, then helping thousands of other burn victims, I knew that her resilience had been an active decision that took determination.
Gratitude in the face of adversity
As I boarded the airplane for San Francisco, I wondered if this was how a soldier felt heading to war. The loss of my paintings, journals, and photos felt like the elimination of years of years of our lives, like the amputation of part of my memory. I felt it physically, as if a vital organ had been wrenched from within me. A couple of times those first two days, I felt myself shaking, and I wondered if I would fall. But the more details I learned of the tragedy, I felt immense gratitude and relief that my family and I were alive, unburned, and relieved of the trauma of escaping from the fire.
My loss was nowhere as great as that of our friends who ended up in a burn unit or the 44 people who died in the Sonoma County fires. Our office was still standing, and we had two full suitcases and two laptops, which was more than most of our friends had, so we set our compass toward resilience.
The best medicine
These early days after the fire are unsettling. So many people lost their homes that temporary quarters are hard to find, often not ideal, and are actually not so temporary, since it will take two or three years to rebuild.
One day I will have a new home, and I will look back on this time from the perspective of a woman who once lost all but who continued to work, to paint, to write, and to appreciate life.
In these uncertain days, the normalcy of work and the sharing of this experience with neighbours have been the best medicine. The support from friends and colleagues has been overwhelming and has given me such strength. An experience like this exaggerates features in relationships, and I’m very fortunate to have Paco as a husband. We are each other’s anchor. Our work and our dreams for a bright future give us purpose, and that’s the best medicine of all.