diego_cervo/iStock/Thinkstock(HOLLYWOOD, Fla.) — Police in Hollywood, Florida, are investigating the deaths of eight nursing home patients after Hurricane Irma damaged the facility’s air conditioning system, subjecting its residents to the sweltering September heat.
A warrant has been signed to begin searching the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, which is affiliated with Larkin Community Hospital, and a criminal investigation is underway.
The city first “became [aware] a crisis was unfolding at the facility after multiple calls in the early morning hours” Wednesday, city spokesperson Raelin Storey said this morning. Of the eight patient deaths, seven occurred Wednesday. The first occurred Tuesday at the facility; that individual had a “do not resuscitate” order and the deceased was transferred to a funeral home, but authorities have now retrieved the body.
Hollywood Fire Rescue crews responded to the nursing home for a call at about 3 a.m. Wednesday regarding a patient who was reportedly in cardiac arrest. That patient was transported to a hospital, police said.
At 4 a.m., firefighters were sent back to the facility to transport a patient reportedly experiencing breathing problems, police said. After the second call, fire officials called the state Department of Children and Families to report concerns about the facility.
A third call later came in as well, police said. After additional crews arrived, three patients were found dead on the second floor of the nursing home, and several other patients were found to be in “varying degrees of medical distress,” authorities said.
The nursing home eventually evacuated all of its patients Wednesday morning at the order of the responding crews.
‘What a price to pay’
One of the eight deceased was Betty Hibbard, 84. Her caregiver and friend of 63 years, Jean Johnson, told ABC News she visited Hibbard at the nursing home on Tuesday and described it as being very hot inside, with patients sitting in the hallway with fans or portable air conditioning units.
Johnson, 83, said her friend was one those in the hallway. She said Hibbard told her, “I can’t breathe.”
“Over the years there’s been several times that we came over and it would be awfully warm in there,” Johnson said. “I never had to wear a coat in there ever.”
Johnson added that if Hibbard had been at home, she would’ve called 911 but since this was a nursing home she said she didn’t want to “overstep” and stayed out of their way.
But Johnson said she never thought her friend would die.
“She was a friend,” Johnson said. “She was absolute a true friend.”
“What a price to pay,” Johnson said of the eight people who died. “They were wonderful people.”
The other victims were: Bobby Owens, 84; Manuel Mario Medieta, 96; Miguel Antonio Franco, 92; Estella Hendricks, 71; Gail Nova, 71; Carolyn Eatherly, 78; and Albertina Vega, 99.
Florida governor vows to hold those responsible accountable
Broward County Mayor Barbara Sharief said the center had contacted the county’s Emergency Operations Center Tuesday morning to alert that it had lost power and the incident was then reported as a “mission-critical request” to Florida Power & Light for power restoration.
Later that day, the center discovered a tree had landed on a transformer and reported that to the county, which in turn alerted FPL, Sharief said. When asked by emergency workers whether they had any medical needs or emergencies, center officials “did not request assistance or indicate any medical emergency existed,” Sharief said.
Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said in a statement that the facility was evacuated Wednesday “due to a prolonged power failure to the transformer which powered the facility’s air conditioning system as a result of the hurricane.”
“Facility administration is cooperating fully with relevant authorities to investigate the circumstances that led to this unfortunate and tragic outcome. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of those who were affected,” he added.
In a later statement, Carballo said, “The center and its medical and administrative staff diligently prepared” for the hurricane.
“We took part in emergency management preparedness calls with local and state emergency officials, other nursing homes and health regulators,” he said. “While our center did not lose power during the storm, it did lose one transformer that powers the air conditioning unit. The center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light and continued to follow up with them for status updates on when repairs would be made. Outreach was also made to local emergency officials and first responders.”
The center had a generator on standby “in compliance with state regulations,” as well as seven days of food, water, ice and other supplies, including gas for the generator, Carballo added. After the air conditioning went down, staff set up “mobile cooling units and fans to cool the facility,” Carballo said. Staff also “continually checked on residents’ well-being” to ensure they were “hydrated and as comfortable as possible,” Carballo said.
“We are devastated by these losses,” Carballo said. “We are fully cooperating with all authorities and regulators to assess what went wrong and to ensure our other residents are cared for.”
The Florida governor’s office said Wednesday Department of Health officials were “in contact with Larkin Community Hospital Behavioral Health Services management and the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills over the past three days” and that “hospital administrators were advised to call 911 if they had any reason to believe that the health or safety of patients was at risk.”
The governor’s office said Tuesday “the facility reported to the AHCA [Agency for Health Care Administration] that they had power and access to fans and spot coolers.”
Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who said in a statement that he was “heartbroken” to learn of the deaths and planned to “aggressively demand answers,” said he directed the AHCA and DCF to work with law enforcement on an investigation. “If they find that anyone wasn’t acting in the best interests of their patients, we will hold them accountable to the fullest extent of the law,” the governor said.
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