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40 Years Ago, Five Died at a Boynton Nursing Home with a Broken Air Conditioner

Sun Sentinel

By Megan O’Matz

The air conditioning was not working in the summer heat and some residents of a nursing home adjacent to a hospital in Florida lost their lives. Five died with body temperatures ranging from 103 to 106.4 degrees. This, however, was not the Hollywood nursing home in 2017.

It was August 1976. The deaths occurred at the Boulevard Manor Nursing Home in Boynton Beach.

The event, more than 40 years earlier, has uncanny similarities to the tragedy that occurred at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where eleven residents died in the aftermath of Hurricane Irma, which knocked out power to the air conditioning for several days. Some, when rescued, were found with temperatures ranging from 107 to 109.9 degrees. The Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office is still determining the exact cause of death.

The Boynton Beach incident shows that Florida and its nursing homes have known for decades the great risk that elderly people face in excessive heat – and yet the state’s lawmakers have not required care facilities for senior citizens to have generators to run air conditioning systems in an emergency.

“Forty years later, still, people are dying from neglect for the same reason,” said Brian Lee, Florida’s former state nursing home ombudsman and now director of an advocacy group for seniors. “More should have been done at that time, more should be done now.”

The Boynton Beach incident, which was front-page news, took the lives of four women and one man, ranging in age from 69 to 93.The 167-bed facility is still open but is called the Boulevard Rehabilitation Center. It is next to Bethesda Hospital East.

Published accounts from 1976 show that the air conditioning stopped working at the nursing home on Monday, August 9, 1976. A malfunctioning compressor — not a hurricane — was to blame.

By late Thursday August 12 and into the following morning three people had died and at least 15 were sick with fevers and showing signs of lethargy or weakness. Two more died in following days.

Initially, doctors suspected a “mystery virus” and took blood samples and throat cultures. When a fourth person died, the nursing home quarantined its residents and took some to the hospital. Officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced that they had not ruled out heat exhaustion.

Within days, the CDC concluded that the Boynton Beach residents had died of heat stroke. As soon as the air conditioning was restored, those who had fallen ill recovered.

The CDC is not investigating the Hollywood deaths, a spokesperson said Wednesday. The agency assists only when states need federal support and ask for it.

Gov. Rick Scott has blasted the Hollywood nursing home for not evacuating the residents to Memorial Regional Hospital, a fully air conditioned hospital across the street and not promptly calling 911. Nursing home officials said they appealed to FPL and called the governor’s cell phone four times during the outage to ask for help.

The elderly and excessive heat are always a bad mix, said Dr. James T. Howell, who was the assistant director of the Palm Beach County Health Department at the time of the 1976 deaths and now directs a disaster preparedness project at Nova Southeastern University. “That’s widely known.”

Howell and six other medical professionals wrote a 1979 academic paper on the event, titled “Hyperpyrexia Due to Air-Conditioning Failure in a Nursing Home.” Hyperpyrexia is an extremely high fever.

The Boynton Beach investigators found a direct correlation between the lack of air conditioning and the onset of elevated temperatures in the residents.

“Circulation of air in the nursing home was poor, and only a small section of the windows could be opened,” their paper states. It was 89 degrees in the nursing home’s physical therapy room.

The report recommends that nursing homes act fast when there is the potential for heat stress in the elderly and suggests that caregivers give the residents liquids to drink frequently and record the amounts ingested.

A spokesman for the nursing home denied in 1976 that the broken air conditioner contributed to the deaths. No state rules were found to have been violated and the episode appears to have quietly faded.