'Hellish Nightmare:' Hollywood Hills Nursing Home Tragedy Continues In Court
Hurricane Irma may have slammed across South Florida almost six months ago, but some are still feeling the effects of the storm.
The hearings against The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, the senior living center in Broward County where 12 seniors died after Irma, have resumed once again.
In a Broward County courtroom in downtown Fort Lauderdale, State Administrative Law Judge Mary Li Creasy presides over the ongoing hearings in the case that will decide whether the Hollywood Hills Rehab center should get its license reinstated or permanently revoked by the state.
The first witness to come back to the stand, after the last set of hearings concluded in early February, was Dr. Marlon Osbourne, the associate medical examiner for Broward County.
Osbourne was one of the doctors who conducted multiple autopsies for Hollywood Hills residents who died days after the hurricane. He said some of the temperatures for people were more than 105 degrees, the highest he’d ever seen in his medical career.
“All of your internal bodily functions are chemical reactions. So when things don’t work properly, organs start to fail,” he said.
"When you're outside of the normal - your normal range of body temperature - your organs will fail," Osbourne said.
Osbourne followed emotional testimonies by paramedics in early February that took the prosecution back to the days following Hurricane Irma and how residents at Hollywood Hills were left in sweltering conditions.
When Hurricane Irma made landfall in South Florida on the morning of Sept. 10, 2017, the winds were 70 miles an hour, gusting even higher by 8:20 in the morning down by Key West.
In the 62 hours that followed the Category 4 storm, protocols inside The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills fell apart - and the first eight of 14 residents died after being left in 99-degree heat without air conditioning.
“Few of us in Florida endured the hellish nightmare that the residents at the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills went through,” said South Florida Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz at a press conference in late October 2017. “This can never be allowed to happen again.”
By late November, 12 of the 14 deaths would be ruled as homicides by the Broward County Medical Examiner’s Office and Hollywood police, directly related to the loss of air conditioning after Irma.
"There appears to be multiple failures involved, whether it was lapses by regulators, staff, administrators or those officials who were counted on to help them," Wasserman Schultz said after the deaths.
Wasserman Schultz went on to file a bill in Congress that would require nursing homes to have generators able to power air conditioning units for at least 96 hours.
At the state level, Sens. Lauren Book of Plantation, and Rene Garcia of Hialeah also proposed bills regulating generators.
This action feels like too little too late for Carol Gonzalez. Her father is 79-year old Pedro Rames.
“When I go there, they couldn’t even find him in the system,” Gonzalez said, holding back tears last fall when recalling the days after Irma. “They didn’t know where he was.”
Rames was living on the first floor of the private nursing home. After the storm, he was hospitalized for five days with dehydration, possible carbon monoxide poisoning and kidney failure. He survived.
“If we’re here today because of a tragedy that can change the system, then let it change the system,” Gonzalez said.
Hollywood Hills is one of some 680 nursing homes in Florida, according to the state’s healthcare administration. If you count the more than 3,000 assisted living facilities that have similar generator guidelines, that means Florida serves roughly 165,000 seniors in facilities.
Pedro Franco wishes both of his parents, who lived at Hollywood Hills, could still be alive today. “We trusted these people that are supposed to be professionally trained to save people’s lives.”
Franco’s father Miguel died shortly after the Hurricane, after three days without air conditioning. Four weeks later, Franco’s mother Cecilia passed away too.
Franco says his anger over the way residents were cared for - or not cared for - at Hollywood Hills after Irma will only be soothed if the center can be closed for good.
“We want justice,” Franco said. “And I hope that everybody that has responsibilities towards those death, will pay.”
Hearings for this case will continue off and on through March 30.