FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. – A paramedic testified that he is haunted by the deaths of 12 patients who died of heat exposure at a Florida nursing home that lost its air conditioning due to a power outage during Hurricane Irma.
Craig Wohlitka and two colleagues from Hollywood Fire-Rescue testified they responded to the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills four times on Sept. 12 and 13 and that the home felt warmer and the home's 150 patients in worse shape each visit. On the final visit, the head nurse was performing CPR on a dead man.
"The lack of care that these people were experiencing and just the conditions they were experiencing," Wohlitka told administrative judge Mary Li Creasy on Wednesday. "In all honesty, this call is still very much haunting."
The South Florida Sun-Sentinel reported that he and his colleagues testified at a hearing in which the nursing home is challenging the state's move to revoke its license. A transformer connecting the main air-conditioning unit to the power grid had been knocked out as Irma blew through Florida on Sept. 10.
The 12 deaths have been ruled homicides but no one has been charged. A criminal investigation is ongoing.
Fire Lt. Amy Parrinello testified that each time they returned, the home's situation seemed to be worsening, especially during the final visits, which were made before dawn on Sept. 13. She said she had already called the state Department of Children and Families to report the home before the final visit.
She said the first patient that morning was a woman in respiratory distress who had a temperature of 107.5 degrees (42 Celsius), the highest she had ever seen in her 12-year career. Later that morning, another patient topped that with a temperature that was so high it couldn't be measured, she said.
Wohlitka said that after the man's death, the crew decided to start checking other patients who hadn't been reported as ill. He said they saw a woman in a room who appeared sick, but a home employee said they had just checked her and she was fine.
"I asked her, 'Are you sure? That woman doesn't look good' and she said, 'No, she just looks like that,'" he said.
Parrinello said she believes the home's staff "panicked" and were "overwhelmed" by the growing crisis.
After taking a patient to Memorial Regional Hospital, a trauma center directly across the street from the home that never lost power, Parrinello returned to help with the evacuation that had been ordered by police and fire officials.
She said that as she checked vital signs of patients as they were being moved to Memorial, she said the home's head nurse told her that wasn't necessary because her staff had already done that.
She said she replied, "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."
This portion of the hearing is scheduled to run through Friday. Creasy will decide later whether to restore the home's license.