Nursing home tragedy unfolded days after Irma’s initial hit » Manila Bulletin News


By Associated Press

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (AP) — The first 911 call from the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills didn’t sound ominous: A nursing home patient had an abnormal heartbeat.

An hour later, came a second call: a patient had trouble breathing. Then came the third call. A patient had gone into cardiac arrest — and died.

Over the next few hours of Wednesday morning, the dire situation at the Rehabilitation Center for fragile, elderly people would come into clearer view. Three days after Hurricane Irma hit Florida, the center still didn’t have air conditioning, and it ultimately became the grimmest tragedy in a state already full of them. Eight people died and 145 patients had to be moved out of the stifling-hot facility, many of them on stretchers or in wheelchairs.

FILE – In this Thursday, Sept. 14, 2017 file photo, Janice Connelly of Hollywood, sets up a makeshift memorial in memory of the senior citizens who died in the heat at The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, Fla.  (Carline Jean /South Florida Sun-Sentinel via AP, File) Manila Bulletin

Authorities launched a criminal investigation to figure out what went wrong and who, if anyone, was to blame. Within hours of the tragedy, Gov. Rick Scott and US Sen. Bill Nelson made no effort to hide their anger and frustration that something like this could happen.

Judy Frum, the chief nursing officer at the air conditioned hospital just across the street, was working in the Irma command center when the emergency room notified her that three patients had been brought in from the nursing home.

“It set off a red flag that something might be going on,” said Frum, who grabbed a colleague and hurried across the street.

When they arrived, paramedics were treating a critically ill patient near the entrance. She saw harried staff members trying to get patients into a room where fans were blowing.

The center had some electricity, but not enough to power the air conditioning.

Frum called her facility, Memorial Regional Hospital, to issue a mass casualty alert. As many as 100 hospital employees rushed over to help.

“The scene on site when I got there was chaotic,” said Randy Katz, Memorial’s emergency services director.

Word of the crisis soon reached relatives. Vendetta Craig searched frantically for her 87-year-old mother for 25 minutes. She finally found her mother, with doctors from Memorial already applying ice and giving her intravenous fluids.

“She opened her eyes — she looked in my eyes— oh my God, that was the best thing that ever came into my soul,” Craig said.

The Rehabilitation Center said the hurricane knocked out a transformer that powered the air conditioning. The center said in a detailed timeline of events released Friday that it repeatedly was told by Florida Power and Light that it would fix the transformer, but the utility did not show up until Wednesday morning, hours after the first patients began having emergencies.

The utility refused to answer any specific questions about the nursing home case.

State and local officials said the nursing home had contacted them, but did not request any help for medical needs or emergencies.

Paulburn Bogle, a member of the housekeeping staff, said employees fought the lack of air conditioning with fans, cold towels, ice and cold drinks for patients.

Rosemary Cooper, a licensed practical nurse at the rehabilitation center, defended the staff’s work but declined to discuss specifics.

“The people who were working there worked hard to make a good outcome for our patients,” she said in a brief interview before hanging up on a reporter. “We cared for them like family.”

Certified nursing assistant Natasha Johnson, who left the facility weeks ago for another job, said she didn’t understand why the center didn’t transfer patients to the hospital sooner. “I’m as shocked as you. I just don’t understand it,” she said.

She noted that it was usually cold in the home, and she “always had to wear a sweater.” But Cristina Bichachi, a former business development director there, said the air conditioner broke down “many, many times” during her three years and owner Jack Michel never replaced it. Michel’s attorney didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Bichachi, who quit over a year ago, said the AC would often stay out for two or three days and it would start to get hot.

“I hope they lose their license and that people pay for what they have done. Some of those patients were hospice patients. It’s not right,” she said.

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