Mary Kay Matossian, BSN, BA, ACLS is a Biometrics Wellness Nurse at Maxim Health Corporation and an educator at Santa Rosa Junior College in Santa Rosa, CA. While pursuing her studies in diabetes education last fall, Mary Kay’s home, cars and belongings were completely destroyed by the Santa Rosa wildfires. Mary details the tremendous impact this ordeal had on her family, her outlook on life, and her commitment to improving the lives of people living with diabetes.
What inspired you to become involved in the field of diabetes education?
As a lifetime learner well-versed in the areas of gastroenterology, biometrics, and nutrition, I never shy away from an educational opportunity. In my position as Wellness Nurse with Maxim Health Corporation, I work with newly-diagnosed students who struggle to self-manage diabetes, which impacts individuals at all stages of life. Given the prevalence of diabetes in our communities, I consider it paramount to expand my diabetes knowledge to support people with diabetes with food choices and lifestyle changes that are so critical to diabetes self-management. My ultimate goal is to promote educational classes that focus on choosing good health, which in turn minimizes chronic diseases.
You had just started the fall 2017 Core Concepts Course when the wildfires began raging in your area. Please share your experience – how quickly did the fire develop? Did you have much time to evacuate?
On October 9, 2017, I woke up at 2:00 a.m. to bright orange “lights” and a very warm bedroom. I saw fire in every window – and quickly realized that my house, trees and shrubs were on fire, compounded by swirling 75 mph winds. Fire was EVERYWHERE. I ran to the garage to discover I couldn’t use the cars – no electricity. Alone and trapped, dressed in shorts and a t-shirt with bare feet, I swallowed my panic and forced myself to BELIEVE there was a solution. I grabbed my cell phone, tennis shoes and a raincoat to shield me from the firestorm, and sprinted out the dining room door, through a brush fire to a nearby golf course.
Every home in the neighborhood was ablaze, and the air was a hot blanket of thick blue-grey smoke, making it terribly difficult to breathe and see. A police officer found me walking disoriented on the street and helped me get to the sheriff’s headquarters, where I stayed until 10:30 the next morning. I was coughing up black sputum and terrified of leaving, as I could hear the explosions of homes, hotels, restaurants and businesses consumed by the fire. The hundreds of first responders were focused on saving lives, not properties. The fires raged on for days, the death toll reached 42, and my entire neighborhood was gone – 1,500 homes! Northern California lost 8,000 structures. The face of Sonoma County was forever changed.
What remains of your home and personal belongings?
Nearly two weeks later I was able to return home – only to discover that absolutely nothing survived the fire. Our home and everything in it was gone; the cars were unrecognizable. Despite the devastation, all I cared about were my neighbors and whether they survived. We focused on replacing basic necessities (clothes, toiletries, a car) and I started a notebook to detail our new contacts, activities, and tasks to help other fire victims. Our insurance company was amazing, providing us with a hotel room until we could secure housing; we bought minimal food and purchased clothes at consignment stores. Although we had lost everything, being unharmed was a powerful elixir. We’re currently living in a friend’s backyard pool house, surrounded by beautiful gardens; it is quiet and peaceful.
Often “home” is considered an extension of the family. How did the Santa Rosa fire impact your husband and children? How do you sustain a semblance of “family” during such a tumultuous period?
Just one month before the fire, our youngest child went off to college, so thankfully my children didn’t witness the destruction of their home, schools, neighborhood, and local businesses. Everyone flew in for the holidays – five of us in a one-bedroom studio – priceless. I felt such happiness with all of us together; we played word games to assess our blessings, achievements and goals. We are immersed in the process of rebuilding – patience and resilience are our goals for 2018.
At AADE, we were happy to provide support by replacing your textbook and postponing your course enrollment. Please tell us about other individuals or organizations that stepped in to assist.
After such a horrific experience, being alive and well took on a whole new meaning; and we are grateful! The raw fortitude, generosity and resourcefulness of northern Californians brings me to tears, as does the kindness of the American Red Cross, firefighters, citizens, neighbors, businesses and boutiques. In fact, AADE was one of the first ones to help by replacing my Desk Reference at no charge!
Self-management is the key to living a healthy, productive life, free of chronic disease. We all deserve this.
How has being a member of AADE helped you treat people with diabetes?
I am excited to start my Core Concepts Course again! (I had just started the September course when the fire disrupted our lives.) I am looking forward to expanding my diabetes education through the wonderful benefits and new technology that AADE has to offer – which in turn will help me support patients and their families manage diabetes successfully!
What do you see as the biggest challenge facing diabetes educators today?
Diabetes is a worldwide pandemic that challenges a person’s capacity to thrive and survive. Why is diabetes escalating in elementary schools? Why are diabetes and obesity the largest public health emergencies of the 21st century? What about the next generation? We need answers to these questions. Self-management is the key to living a healthy, productive life, free of chronic disease. We all deserve this.
Your perspective of 2017 is shaped by “before the fire” and “after the fire.” What is your biggest takeaway?
There are no guarantees in life. Be prepared emotionally, intellectually and physically. Take care of yourself because no one else can! Making changes to my own food intake had a powerful impact on my health, stamina and critical thinking skills. A local yoga studio offered me an unlimited free one-year membership; I found that practicing yoga helped me release fears, relieved ailments, and increased my strength and mental focus. I learned that it’s okay to be afraid and to cry. Our community was traumatized, but we are stronger! After running away from the fires and surviving, I want to continue to challenge people with diabetes to live the very best life they can…every day! You never know what may happen.
What are some of your interests outside of diabetes education?
Life is busy and full. Some of my interests include yoga, hiking, reading, meditation, cooking, health lectures and just making time for old and new friends. My husband and I enjoy local adventures like a day at the ocean – only 30 miles away; watching the enormous waves crash on the rocks along the rugged cliffs gives us a sense of timelessness…and this time in our lives soon will come to pass.