Nursing home death: ‘All they had to do was call 911,’ family says

Erika Navarro said she had been on FaceTime with her grandfather, Miguel Antonio Franco, on September 5 — his 93rd birthday. Navarro, her grandfather and her mother had birthdays a few days apart and a joint party was in the works.

“I told him, ‘Grandpa, I’ll be coming in a week to celebrate our birthdays and to see you again,’ ” Navarro said Monday at a news conference in south Florida about a wrongful death lawsuit her family has filed. “He just said, ‘Hurry up and get here so we can sit down chat and play dominoes.’ “

Choking back tears, Navarro said, “He was healthy. To know that someone you love is healthy and you were almost there to see them, and a tragedy like this happens, how do you explain or help yourself know they are gone?”

Franco was one of 11 elderly residents of a nursing home, The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills, to die after Hurricane Irma struck south Florida on September 10.

Franco’s family late last week filed a wrongful death and negligence lawsuit against the nursing home, alleging the facility failed to provide proper air conditioning and that patients suffered for days because of sweltering temperatures resulting from loss of power to AC units. It also claims the nursing home failed to make timely calls for emergency assistance.

The lawsuit also alleges the nursing home didn’t provide proper care to Miguel Franco’s wife, Cecilia Franco, 90, who also lived in the nursing home. She survived but was hospitalized in serious condition, the family said.

‘Deepest sympathy’

Lawyers for The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills could not immediately be reached for comment on the lawsuit, which seeks unspecified damages.

Earlier, the nursing home issued this statement: “The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills expresses its deepest sympathy to the family members of the residents who passed away following a prolonged outage of our air conditioning system due to Hurricane Irma.”

Nursing home officials have said they were in constant contact with state and local authorities and took steps to provide cooling devices inside.

The exact cause of the 11 deaths has not been reported, but a number of the 141 residents who were evacuated were treated for heat-related issues.

‘Absolutely stunning’

The lawyer for Franco’s family, Curtis Miner, said his death was avoidable. Irma wreaked havoc in less developed places in the Caribbean, but none recorded a tragedy on the level of the nursing home, he said.

“It is absolutely stunning to us the nursing home was so unprepared for what would inevitably happen with Hurricane Irma and it is absolutely stunning to us they did not take emergency action when this tragedy began to unfold,” Miner said.

“This is something that could have been prevented,” said Pedro Franco, the deceased man’s son. “All they had to do was call 911.”

The deaths are part of an ongoing criminal investigation, the Hollywood Police Department said. Meanwhile, state and federal agencies are conducting administrative investigations.

The storm hit on September 10 and the power to the air conditioning went out, according to the lawsuit filed Friday in Broward County Circuit Court. The nursing home didn’t have a generator-powered air conditioning system to keep the building cool in case of a power outage, the suit says.

The nursing home staff didn’t evacuate the patients to the hospital across the street but “wheeled many of the residents into the hallway, undressed some of them and left them to remain there, trapped in the sweltering heat,” the suit says.

A call to 911 was placed at 1:30 a.m. September 13 after a patient went into cardiac distress, the lawsuit says. The lawsuit doesn’t identify the caller, but a timeline provided by The Rehabilitation Center at Hollywood Hills says the nursing home made the call, as well as two other 911 calls over the next few hours. The governor’s office said any calls came too late.

“This facility is failing to take responsibility for the fact that they delayed calling 911 and made the decision to not evacuate their patients to one of the largest hospitals in Florida, which is directly across the street,” Gov. Rick Scott said in a statement.

The evacuation of patients started about 6:30 a.m. that day, the nursing home’s timeline says, adding, “Up to and through the evacuation, protocol was followed.”

City and state officials said they were in contact with the nursing home for three days after the storm hit and advised them to call 911 if they believed that the health or safety of patients was at risk.

Nursing home administrator Jorge Carballo said the center immediately contacted Florida Power & Light on September 10 and continued to follow up with the utility for status updates on when repairs to the transformer that powered the air-conditioning system would be made. The nursing home, in a timeline, said it began using 10 portable units on September 10.

The facility said an official with its parent company made calls on that Monday and Tuesday to several state agencies to report the problem. Workers at the facility got more portable air conditioners from a nearby hospital, the facility’s timeline says.

Deleted voicemails

At their news conference, the family was asked to respond to reports that Scott or his office had deleted four voicemails the nursing home left on Scott’s personal cell phone. The governor provided that number to law enforcement, emergency services and nursing homes during the storm.

“I don’t even know what to think of it,” Navarro said. “Why delete something, whether he thought it was important or not.”

She said she didn’t know what the messages said. Nursing home officials have not provided details about what information was in the voice messages.

Scott’s office issued a statement about the deleted voicemails.

“The voicemails were not retained because the information from each voicemail was collected by the Governor’s staff and given to the proper agency for handling. Every call was returned. The information collected from the voicemails was released to the public this week, along with over 150 pages of other documents.

“This is in line with the state’s record retention policy and Florida law. … None of this changes the fact that this facility chose not to call 911 or evacuate their patients to the hospital across the street to save lives.”

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