A Sarasota County hospital is dealing with a surge in patients after Ian. But help has arrived
Health workers on a federal disaster relief team have set up a tent emergency room outside Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Venice. They're helping take the pressure off, so hospital staff can focus on treating the sickest patients.
Hurricane Ian continues to strain Florida's healthcare system more than a week after the storm tore through the state. Some hospitals are still closed after flooding and high winds damaged their buildings. Others struggled to operate without running water.
The disruption forced nearby facilities to pick up the slack, like Sarasota Memorial Health Care System's hospital in Venice.
“It’s been absolute chaos, but surprisingly controlled chaos,” said physician Kyle Garner, the hospital’s associate chief medical officer.
The hospital, which has been open for less than a year, typically sees about 100 patients a day in its emergency department, explained Garner. Now, it’s seeing 200-300.
The Venice facility is about an hour north of Fort Myers, which took the brunt of Hurricane Ian. But there was also heavy flooding nearby, after Ian caused the Myakka River to overflow, devastating communities like North Port, where Sarasota Memorial’s freestanding emergency room is still unable to see patients.
A medical office on the Venice hospital campus is also closed after the storm tore off part of its roof.
“Many of the medical offices and hospitals really sustained a significant amount of damage, many of them closed,” said Garner. “It left a lot of the people south of us without any access to medical care, so we really became the closest institution.”
Fortunately help arrived within days of the storm.
On a recent morning, health workers bustled around a large tent that's taken over a parking lot at the Venice hospital. Machines beeped as patients on stretchers were wheeled through cramped aisle ways.
This pop-up medical center is run by a Disaster Medial Assistance Team, or DMAT. During catastrophes like hurricanes, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deploys these teams to hard-hit communities. There are several in Florida right now.
Nurse Jackie Nally is operations chief of this 37-person team, which hails from Boston and is called MA-1. Similar to military reservists, health workers on DMATs have day jobs back home and get called on when needed for short-term deployments. Nally has been working in disaster zones for more than 30 years.
“I love the opportunity to help others and be able to contribute something to those that are in need,” Nally said.
The health hazards of a hurricane
It’s become a family affair. Nally's son Craig, a physician assistant is also working in the tent facility, which is split up into three sections depending on the severity of patients’ conditions.
Staff say they're treating injuries they often see after hurricanes, things like broken bones or chainsaw wounds from cleanup efforts gone wrong. And infections people get from wading through germ-riddled flood water.
Craig Nally said he recently gave antibiotics and tetanus shots to a couple who had been trapped in their North Port home for days and were covered in cuts and scrapes, which he said was likely caused by bumping into flooded debris.
He was struck by their gratitude, not just for staff, but for each other.
“They had lost everything and they just kept saying you know, ‘We're just happy that we have each other and our kids are safe,’ and it was just very powerful to hear,” he said.
Moments like that make the two weeks staff spend away from their families living and working in tents worthwhile, said pharmacist Shannon Manzi, who along with the MA-1 team also responded to Hurricane Irma in the Florida Keys five years ago and many storms before that.
“My son famously said when he was 3 years old, ‘We donated Mommy to Katrina,’ when he saw fundraising adds on TV,” Manzi said, referring to the 2005 hurricane that caused mass destruction in Louisiana and Mississippi.
They treat kids in the tent too, and pediatrician Ed Chung said staff try to make them comfortable, despite the noise and crowds.
“You know for example one of our staff members had a birthday during this deployment and so we got some balloons, and those balloons have steadily been going to pediatric patients along the way,” Chung said.
Holding one of those “Happy Birthday” balloons was Joey Murray, who got nipped by his family dog after the storm. The 3-year-old lay in a bed as his mom Mariah Murray cradled him and laughed as he insisted it was his birthday, which it wasn’t.
The Murrays live in Englewood, and Mariah works in an assisted-living facility that got partially flooded by Ian. Between her job and her son's injury, Murray said it's been hard. But she doesn’t mind the tent.
“I didn't expect them [the hospital] to have a secondary place set up but actually it has worked really well, because normally we'd be sitting in a waiting room waiting but we're not, we're already getting taken care of,” said Murray.
A long road ahead
The disaster team has been “invaluable” taking the pressure off the main hospital, said Sarasota Memorial administrator Kyle Garner.
His staff can now focus on caring for the sickest patients, and transfer others further north to hospitals that were less affected in areas like Tampa and St. Petersburg.
“You know we've been operating at 130, even as high as 160 patients, in a hospital that only has 110 beds,” said Garner. “So getting those patients out to other facilities that can really provide them care is what we've been focused on.”
Garner commended his staff for their hard work, even as many of them suffered personal losses from Ian.
The hospital is still working to bring back elective surgeries, which were halted as the storm neared. But it could take some time, as patient volume in the facility remains high even with the outside help.
In addition to urgent needs like storm-related injuries, staff are also treating a large number of patients experiencing medical issues that stem from delaying their care during the storm, things like diabetes complications after delaying their health care during the storm, like diabetes complications. This will likely continue in the near future.
And with other facilities in the region still shuttered, it could be weeks or even months before the area’s health system is back on track.
“We think about a hospital in and of itself, but really we are all community-interconnected with other facilities and when you have these kinds of big shutdowns,” said Garner. "Much like with COVID and the supply chain issues, we’re dealing with that here but from a medical standpoint. So it takes a lot to restart that system up."