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Florida Nursing Home Tragedy: Can We Learn from These Mistakes?

When a natural disaster like a hurricane strikes, South Florida's elderly residents are among the area's most vulnerable. A criminal probe has been launched since eight residents of The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills died after a loss of power left the facility without air conditioning.

Nursing homes have a responsibility to keep their residents safe. A recent tragedy here in Florida shows what happens when a nursing home fails to live up to that responsibility. We look at what happened and how it might be prevented in the future.

While the center did not lose all power due to the storm, a transformer that powers the air conditioning was damaged. As a result, residents were exposed to high heat and humidity for an as yet unknown span of time.

Nursing home administrators said that they attempted to contact Florida Power & Light. They also say that they installed mobile cooling units and fans to keep temperatures lower. On the days immediately after the storm, heat indexes reached as high as 100 degrees, with low temperatures in the 70s.

The first fire rescue crews were called to the facility around 3 a.m. on Wednesday to aid a patient in cardiac arrest. They returned an hour later to transport a patient who was suffering breathing difficulties. Police Chief Tomas Sanchez said that the second floor of the facility was excessively hot. In all, 158 individuals were evacuated from the facility, along with an additional 18 from an adjacent behavioral health facility.

Family members of residents said that they had trouble getting information about their loved ones. They said that, while the staff always behaved attentively and respectfully, it was not unusual for them not to return calls for days at a time.

While information about this tragedy is still unfolding, it is not too soon to ask what could have been done to protect these individuals and what actions should be taken in the future to ensure our elderly citizens' health and welfare.

What Risks Affect Older Individuals?

After a disaster, elderly people may face additional problems. Here in South Florida, soaring temperatures and lack of access to air conditioning can quickly lead to heat-related issues. Interruptions in supply chains can hamper access to necessary medications. Poor road conditions can make it difficult for caretakers to travel, leaving residential facilities short-staffed.

Individuals may also suffer from cognitive or mobility issues that can prevent them from moving to a safer location even within a facility. Heartbreaking photos emerged after Hurricane Harvey struck Houston in late August, including ones that depicted trapped nursing home residents sitting in several feet of water.

How Can You Protect Your Family Members?

Natural disasters cannot be prevented, but their impact can be lessened with good planning in place. If you have a loved one in a nursing home or other residential care facility, asking the right questions now can help you feel more secure about their safety if a disaster strikes. A few of the concerns to consider:

  • Know who to talk to. Find out who is responsible for handling family members' questions and concerns.
  • Find out if there is an actionable disaster plan in place. Facilities that house elderly and disabled individuals should have plans for coping with issues that include power loss, flood, supply interruptions and other potentially life-threatening issues.
  • Ask what events trigger a disaster plan. Administrators should be able to tell you what they will do in case of an emergency and what conditions will cause them to take actions that include evacuating residents to another location.
  • Make frequent visits. If you are actively involved, you can learn more about the general conditions at the facility and gauge whether you feel that your loved one is in good hands.
  • Call often and insist on quick responses. While everyone gets busy, those who care for vulnerable populations have an obligation to let loved ones know about potential dangers to their family members.
  • Ask about your loved one's supply of necessary medications. Many elderly individuals have medications that must be taken daily. In some cases, abruptly stopping medication can cause severe health issues. Your contacts at the facility should be able to tell you whether they keep well stocked and what they plan to do if there is an event that leads to a supply disruption.
  • Consider evacuating your loved one early if feasible. After a storm, it may be too late to get residents out. Roads may be blocked by debris or downed power lines. Law enforcement may close county lines and not let people in or out. By making arrangements in advance, you can ensure that your loved one is out of harm's way.

As one of South Florida's most respected and oldest law firms, Stabinski & Funt, P.A. has helped many people sort out their legal rights, responsibilities, and remedies for 45 years. We work on a contingency basis, which means that if there is no recovery, there is no fee or cost to you. To learn more about how our firm can help you, contact us for a free consultation by calling 305-964-8644 or filling out a case evaluation form.

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