Hurricane Irma washed away homes and hope from the Florida Keys. But in one of the hardest-hit regions, it couldn’t knock out the only hospital in town.
Fishermen’s Community Hospital was ruined by the Category 4 storm that struck Sept. 10, 2017, two months after Baptist Health South Florida bought it for $13 million in cash.
A year later, the hospital was merely a collection of shipping containers and tents — a field hospital, the company called it. Patients had to be wheeled outside, sometimes in the blazing sun, to go from department to department.
It wasn’t pretty but it worked as a critical care unit that treated some 5,500 people over almost 10 months.
“Space was tight; it was hot. We had leaks sometimes when it rained,” said Rachel Brown, a registered nurse who is the emergency room manager. “We had curtains between rooms.”
As of Monday morning, Fishermen’s had a much more stable presence. Baptist spent $5 million to plant 8,000 square feet of modular buildings at 3301 Overseas Hwy. The new hospital opened Monday at 7 a.m. By 7:04 a.m., the first patient had walked in, Baptist officials said.
“We’ve done everything we can to bring a hospital back to this community,” said Rick Freeburg, CEO of Fishermen’s and Mariners Hospital in Tavernier. “We came in and were committed from the get-go. Regardless of circumstances, we’re committed.”
That commitment came with huge losses. Fisherman’s has cost Baptist $11 million in the past nine months. Rebuilding the hospital, which sits behind the modular buildings like a giant headstone, will cost at least $40 million and take close to three years.
So for now, this modular hospital is Fishermen’s, a place still short on space and storage. There is no administration office. The hospital is two weeks away from being 100 percent open as the four inpatient rooms — each one with a required-by-law window — are still under construction, along with a cafeteria for staff.
There’s still no operating room or OBGYN department. The hospital says it sees about 25 patients per day.
On Tuesday, staff huddled in a hallway for a meeting. An employee worried that visitors would see trays of prescription drugs stacked on a wheeled cart in the hallway. “I’m watching them,” she said.
But patients have much more privacy now with six treatment rooms. And unlike the field hospital, everything is enclosed.
Fishermen’s is one of three hospitals along the 113 miles of Monroe County’s island chain with Mariners in Tavernier and Lower Keys Medical Center in Key West.
As part of the rebuilding process, the Monroe County Commission last week 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.
The tax passed 5-0 despite some grumblings from residents that the measure should go out to referendum. Some locals questioned Baptist’s profit margins.
Councilman Mark Senmartin of Marathon said he supports Baptist Health 100 percent but wants more details as to where the money will go.
“What are we getting for our money?” Senmartin asked the commissioners.
Fishermen’s still lacks a proper entrance sign and isn’t the easiest place to find for an out-of-towner. A sign with a blue “H” marks it for now.
The opening of the new modular hospital wasn’t without problems. The hospital was shut down last week because of problems the city’s fire marshal found with the fire sprinklers.
That left the Middle Keys without an emergency room, with Mariners Hospital more than 30 miles north being the nearest spot patients could be treated by an ER doctor or nurse.
Brown only joined Fishermen’s a few months after Irma, transferring from Mariners. She makes the commute from Key Largo to Marathon daily.
“How resilient these people in Marathon are,” Brown said, when asked why she does it. “That’s why I decided to take this job. A lot of them are just now rebuilding or still living in RVs and finding places to rent.”