Soaring temperatures, dying patients and a nurse asleep

Megan O’Matz Sun Sentinel

HOLLYWOOD, Fla. (TNS) — On video, a nurse is shown nodding off, her head bobbing back and forth.

“She’s clearly asleep,” a health care consultant said in sworn testimony. “She was having a hard time staying awake.”

She was one of two nurses assigned to the overnight shift on the second floor of the Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills on a muggy Tuesday in September 2017, the night people started to die from the heat.

Althia Meggie and Tamika Miller were temporary workers, called in only when needed. They worked so infrequently their bosses could not identify them later on security video from inside the nursing home.

Their supervisor that night — the nurse left in charge of the whole building, Sergo Colin — had started working there only about a week before, not enough time to even be trained on the facility’s hurricane emergency plan, officials concluded.

None of the facility’s leaders were there, even though it was now the third night after Hurricane Irma had knocked out the air conditioning.

Stepping into the second-floor corridor, you were hit with a blast of heat, similar to opening a car door left in the hot summer sun. Windows were closed. Three portable air conditioners, called spot coolers, were placed in hallways, but they gave little relief unless you stood inches from them. Fans just blew hot air around.

Through interviews, depositions and other state records, the South Florida Sun Sentinel pieced together a revealing look inside the now-shuttered nursing home on the fateful night when eight frail, elderly people died one after the other. Six more passed away in later days.

The records give a portrait of an unfamiliar and inattentive crew at the helm, unaware of the growing crisis until it was too late, and bosses scurrying afterward, summoning workers to a Starbucks to complete paperwork and get their stories straight.

A dozen of the deaths, ultimately, were ruled homicides.

All but one of the dead lived on the home’s second floor.

A criminal investigation continued for nearly two years, but now charges have been filed and at least three nursing home workers surrendered Monday. Hollywood police have scheduled a news conference for Tuesday.

Experienced state regulators who reviewed the evidence in the nursing home’s licensing case said they’d never seen so many deaths in such a short period at one facility.

“Never. Ever. Horrific,” one testified.

Trouble began Sunday, Sept. 10, 2017, when the violent, Category 4 storm knocked out power to a vital transformer, disabling the facility’s air conditioning.

Executives of the nursing home repeatedly called the Florida Power & Light utility company, state health officials and even then-Gov. Rick Scott to try to get the problem fixed, to no avail. Much of the state was without electricity, including many other nursing homes.

At Hollywood Hills, operators brought in portable air conditioners and fans and hoped the power to the A/C would be restored soon.

But Sunday turned into Monday and Monday into Tuesday, still without relief.

On Tuesday morning, a staffer sent up a verbal flare to Jorge Carballo, the home’s top administrator, in a WhatsApp group message among colleagues: “Hey, Jorge, those patients don’t look good. We need fans.”

The staffer was not a nurse or doctor — but the director of housekeeping, who had been cleaning and picking up trash on the second floor, according to the records.

Jorge was not in the building at the time. He had left the prior evening and would not return again until Tuesday evening.

Nor was the director of nursing, Maria Castro, there. She had ridden out the storm at the building then left that Monday afternoon and did not return until Wednesday, when the place was a crime scene.

While away, Carballo and Castro monitored the conditions through phone calls and the group messaging app with staff, according to their depositions, which were taken in March 2018.

A natural disaster quickly became an internal disaster.

Around lunchtime Tuesday, paramedics came for 93-year-old Carlos Canal, who had a fever and was short of breath. He suffered from heart disease, dementia, pneumonia and other ailments and was hospitalized. He died a week later — of the heat, according to the Broward County medical examiner.

That same afternoon, a nurse wrote in a WhatsApp conversation: “Good morning, team. We continue without A/C and ice. Maybe we could buy ice somewhere for the residents? They had a difficult night.”

Jorge Carballo, the nursing home’s chief administrator and the person ultimately responsible for the residents’ safety, testified he never even talked with the nursing home staff about evacuating the 141 residents.

“It was always in the back of my mind, but I never discussed it,” he told attorneys for the state, claiming there was no need because the ambient temperature never exceeded 80 degrees, which is one degree lower than the federal limit.

Rescue crews who later descended on the facility, however, described it as a cauldron.

Crime scene photos of hand-held gauges show ambient temperatures of 95 and 96 degrees and even 100 degrees in one resident’s room. The room was festooned with flowers and a colorful balloon that says “Mom.”

Nurses Althia Meggie and Tamika Miller showed up Tuesday to work the overnight shift.

Meggie, then 34, had worked for Hollywood Hills for less than three months and, in that time, had been on duty for a total of only about 10 days. In the past three weeks, she hadn’t had a shift.

Miller, then 29, had worked the prior night, but she, too, was on the schedule only periodically.

They were assigned to tend to the medical needs of some 50 residents on the top floor.

Assisting the nurses on that floor were three aides who were responsible for helping people bathe, get dressed and eat, according to attorney Khurrum Basir Wahid, who represented Meggie.