All of the patients at the Rehabilitation Center of Hollywood Hills were elderly, frail and in poor health, but perhaps none were as immobile as 94-year-old Rosa Cabrera.
A diabetic with weight problems, Cabrera’s left leg was amputated last year and her right leg was removed in March, one month before she was placed in the nursing home.
Cabrera was among 141 residents evacuated from the sweltering home on Wednesday, after Hurricane Irma knocked out electrical power to the center’s air-conditioning system last Sunday. Eight of the home’s residents died Wednesday morning.
In the first lawsuit filed since the tragedy, Cabrera’s family said that as a double amputee she suffered injury, pain and distress inflicted by the center’s staff, who should have known that “she could not care for herself or escape the horrific conditions” at the nursing home.
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The negligence suit, brought in Broward Circuit Court, seeks unspecific damages. Other lawsuits are expected to be filed against the center by the families of the eight patients who died.
“It’s a disgrace the way that she and the other patients were treated,” said Cabrera’s son-in-law, Ray Nazario, a retired homicide investigator with Miami-Dade Police. “If they had called 911 and removed all the patients immediately, no one would have died. She was very traumatized when she learned about the deaths.”
Nazario works for the Cabrera family’s attorney in the lawsuit, Stuart Grossman, who specializes in medical malpractice law. In the suit, Grossman said Cabrera was assured by the rehab center’s staff as Hurricane Irma approached Florida that she would be safe during the storm. Instead, he said, the home placed her in unnecessary danger that could have cost the woman her life.
He said the center’s conduct far surpasses a failure to meet a standard of care because Cabrera was forced to endure unbearable heat when the staff did not immediately respond to the escalating medical emergency.
“It exceeds all boundaries of decency,” Grossman told the Herald on Saturday. “She had to rely on them to move her. As a double amputee, it just adds to the outrage.”
The rehab center, along with a psychiatric facility next door, was acquired by South Miami’s Larkin Community Hospital in a bankruptcy sale in 2015. The hospital’s CEO, Jack Michel, could not be reached for comment on Saturday.
On Friday, the now-suspended nursing home, which faces a criminal investigation by the Hollywood Police and administrative probes by state and federal regulators, defended its procedures before, during and after the storm.
In a time line, the center said two FP&L transformers — one that powers the building’s life safety systems and the second the air-conditioning chiller — flickered and came back on Sunday afternoon during the storm. But then the power to the AC chiller went down and did not come back.
Nursing home operators said they contacted FP&L, state regulators and even Gov. Rick Scott’s cell phone but received no assistance. They said the staff set up 10 spot coolers and fans on the first and second floors, and eventually obtained additional spot coolers from Memorial Regional Hospital, across the street.
But the rehab center’s administrator also admitted in the time line that they did not call 911 to deal with the medical emergency and failing patients until 1:30 a.m. Wednesday. Five patients suffered cardiac arrest or respiratory distress by 4:45 a.m.
The nursing home’s evacuation was carried out under the supervision of local authorities and Memorial Regional staff at 6:30 a.m..
In a final note, the time line concludes: “FPL arrived at our center to fix the transformer on Wednesday morning, hours after our residents began having health emergencies. Up to and through the evacuation, protocol was followed.”
However, Nazario said that the center’s protocol was meaningless because its staff never took any action to prevent the deaths and harm to other patients like his mother-in-law. “They never contacted us at all,” he said. “We learned about it when my wife got a call from a friend on Wednesday morning saying that something really bad happened at the nursing home.”
Nazario said that his mother-in-law is staying at Memorial Regional Hospital South until her family can find another nursing home for her.