The Sun Sentinel reported the trauma suffered by first responders to Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center after Hurricane Irma. Many are still haunted by the dying nursing home residents they tried to save as they sweltered in a building with no air conditioning. Some reported that it was cooler outside the nursing home than inside where the residents struggled to breathe in the heat.
“In a span of about three hours on Sept. 13, the Hollywood firefighter/paramedic and fellow crew members treated two critically ill residents. They had trouble breathing and registered body temperatures of 107.5 degrees. When the paramedics returned to the Hollywood Hills Rehabilitation Center for a third time that day, they found the head nurse performing CPR on a dead male patient.
“The lack of care that these people were experiencing and just the conditions they were experiencing,” Wohlitka said. “In all honesty, this call is still very much haunting.”
Wohlitka and other fire-rescue workers who responded to the nursing home testified in court. This is the first time the rescue workers who responded to the nursing home where 12 ultimately died have publicly given their accounts of what they saw during those deadly pre-dawn hours. It was part of a series of hearings this week to determine whether the nursing home should be allowed to re-open. The nursing home is challenging the state’s move to revoke its license.
After finding the dead man, the crew decided to check out other residents. Wohlitka said he noticed a woman inside her room looked “unwell” from where he stood in the hallway. He tried to figure out if she was OK, but nursing home staff insisted they had already done their round of checks. “I attempted to enter the room and evaluate her and I was stopped by a Hollywood Hills staff member who basically told me that they had just done rounds and everybody was fine,” he testified. “I asked her, ‘Are you sure? That woman doesn’t look good’ and she said, ‘No, she just looks like that.’
“I just felt bad for that woman,” Wohlitka said. “You beat yourself up and maybe I should have told that facility member ‘no,’ but an RN is higher than a firefighter and a paramedic. We had no reason to doubt her.”
But eventually the paramedics did doubt the competency of the nursing home staff. “I believe that they were panicked, that they were overwhelmed by the amount of patients that we were deeming critical,” Parrinello testified.
As she tried checking on patients’ vital signs, she said the head nurse told her that his staff had already done that. Parrinello testified that at this point she doubted the staff had been truthful about their assessment of patients. She said she told the head nurse: ’Well, you told me that before and now we have multiple deceased patients. So, with all due respect, I don’t trust your judgment and we’re going to check everyone ourselves.’
Ultimately, a dozen residents died from heat exposure and the medical examiner determined their deaths to be homicides.
Said Wohlitka, the firefighter/paramedic: “The uncomfortable heat alone was unbearable for myself, I won’t speak for anybody else. I was very uncomfortable inside the facility; I can only imagine what somebody who wasn’t able to go outside or get out was dealing with. I think it’s pretty evident… it just wasn’t safe.”