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At Florida Nursing Home, Many Calls for Help, None That Made a Difference

New York Times

By Ellen Gabler, Sheri Fink, and Vivian Yee

The emergency room workers at Memorial Regional Hospital rushed the first patient to Room 9, which was devoted to the hope and practice of arresting death. They threaded fluid lines into her veins and readied a breathing tube. Even through gloves, they could feel the heat corseting the 84-year-old woman’s body.

As they prepared to insert a catheter, they saw what looked like steam rising from her legs.

The numbers from the catheter’s temperature gauge would not stop climbing. The nurses, respiratory technicians and other medical staff watched it halt at last at 41.9 degrees Celsius — 107 degrees Fahrenheit.

It was only the fourth-highest body temperature Memorial would record that morning among elderly patients being evacuated from the nursing home nearby, the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, where air-conditioning had failed after Hurricane Irma chewed up power lines across the state.

Eight residents of the nursing home were dead by the end of that day, Sept. 13, and three who were among the 140 evacuated have died since. The Hollywood police have opened a criminal investigation, while the state has all but shut down the residence.

That same day, about 160 other nursing homes across Florida had no electricity, and most of those, like Hollywood Hills, had no generator capable of powering air-conditioning. But of all those places, the only one where a power loss is known to have caused multiple deaths was the home that advertised being “directly across the street from Hollywood’s Memorial Regional Hospital — so patients receive the finest health care day and night.”

Interviews with nursing home representatives, hospital personnel, residents’ families and government officials, as well as a review of emergency response records, show a preventable descent into the suffocating chaos of that early morning.

The nursing home’s state-approved emergency plan was confounded by a foreseeable electrical failure. The home said its repeated requests for help from state and county officials, and to the power company, yielded no results.

Gov. Rick Scott and other state and local officials say they never had any indication from Hollywood Hills that residents were in distress, though records show that a facility that shared the building reported that the conditions were “adversely affecting patients.” In any event, the officials and the power company said, it was the nursing home’s responsibility to ensure its residents’ safety. The local medical examiner’s office is still investigating the cause and manner of the deaths.

As Irma threatened and then passed, nursing home workers reassured families that their loved ones would be safe. But fans and portable coolers were not enough for some residents, with one so overcome by the heat that she lay nearly naked on a bed in the second-floor hallway. When firefighters were finally summoned to rush people out, they said the conditions reminded them of battling a fire.

Somewhere in between, the misery of a nursing home teetering toward tragedy was reported to every official channel, but no attempt was made to transfer the residents to a safer place, or even to the air-conditioned hospital practically next door.

“I’d had the deepest fear all along of my mother being in a situation, a helpless situation,” said Vendetta Craig, whose 87-year-old mother was evacuated from the home and