Florida

A hurricane destroyed a Keys hospital two years ago. Change is on the way

Two years ago, Hurricane Irma wiped out the only hospital in the middle of the Florida Keys.

With the building in ruins, Fishermen’s Community Hospital set up tents in the parking lot 16 days after the storm. It looked like a military encampment in a war zone.

Those tents evolved into temporary modular buildings. It still didn’t look like a city hospital.

But a new, permanent building is on the way. Fishermen’s is about to be rebuilt. And soon, a critical chain in the Keys medical system will be restored.

“We’re committed to going forward with a state-of-the-art hospital,” said Rick Freeburg, CEO of Baptist’s Fishermen’s Community and Mariners Hospital in Tavernier. “That’s our plan.”

It started this past week with the ceremonial shoveling of dirt. Real construction will start soon, and the opening of the $43 million, one-story building is forecast for the summer of 2021. The wrecked building has been demolished.

People in Monroe County consider the hospital a critical presence.

Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon is one of only three hospitals along the 113-mile island chain. The nearest hospital, and operating room, is about an hour away in either direction.

The rebuilding of Fishermen’s has been a lesson in patience for its owners, employees and Keys residents.

For nearly a year after Irma, the MASH-type unit sat on the property at mile marker 48.7, complete with tents and trailers. Patients were often wheeled around outdoors from makeshift department to makeshift department. Then in July 2018, the modular units came, allowing Fishermen’s to offer inpatient care.

Now, a permanent building will make the storm-devastated hospital whole again.

The loss of a major hospital can bore even bigger holes in the Keys medical system, which is fragile to start. Even the most populous area of the Keys has a hospital, Lower Keys Medical Center, that can’t handle every medical issue.

Suffer a serious trauma and you’ll be airlifted by helicopter to a Miami-area hospital. Need a specialist? Many with chronic illness and major diseases must make the long trek up U.S. 1 to Miami-Dade County or beyond.

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Having a baby? The only place with an OB-GYN ward in Monroe County is the hospital in Key West, which was spared swamping from Irma.

While major medical emergencies will still have to be treated on the mainland, the reconstruction of Fishermen’s will bolster the basic medical services available in the Keys.

This past week marked a milestone for Fishermen’s owner, Baptist Health South Florida.

Executives and officials formally broke ground on the new hospital building.

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Monroe County officials take part in a groundbreaking ceremony at Fishermen’s Community Hospital in Marathon on Friday, Sept. 20, 2019. The original hospital was destroyed by Hurricane Irma in September 2017. Kristen Livengood

Two months before Fishermen’s Community Hospital was ruined by Category 4 Irma on Sept. 10, 2017, Baptist bought it for $13 million in cash with plans for renovations.

While having kept a footprint in Marathon since weeks after Irma, Fishermen’s has remained a limited facility. A patient who has a heart attack or stroke, for instance, would have to be taken to the mainland after being stabilized first, the hospital said. That will change.

“The new hospital will have an ICU and an operating room,” said Freeburg, the CEO. “It’s ... 38,000 square feet. It’s a compact hospital efficiently designed.”

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Fishermen’s will have 22 inpatient beds, less than half of what the former 1962-era hospital had.

“Neither Mariners nor Fishermen’s will have that many patients to need that many beds,” Freeburg said. To be considered a critical access hospital, the maximum number of rooms it can have is 25, he said.

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Rick Freeberg, CEO of Fishermen’s Community and Mariners Hospitals, sits inside the future nursing unit near the observation and inpatient rooms. Fishermen’s Hospital in Marathon, which is owned by Baptist Health South Florida, reopened on Monday, July 23, 2018, after bringing in modular structures so it can function as a hospital. The hospital was destroyed by Hurricane Irma last September. CARL JUSTE cjuste@miamiherald.com

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Funding the $43 million budget is money raised by Baptist’s foundation — about $15 million has been collected so far — and a new county tax.

In 2018, the Monroe County Commission unanimously approved a new property tax for the Middle Keys to raise $1.5 million a year for 10 years to pay for the poorest patients’ care — a request by Baptist.

Freeburg said Baptist hopes to find a nearby location, and the money, to build a medical office building as well.

“Baptist is here to stay,” Freeburg said.

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