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How hospitals in southwest Florida are coping with the surge in patients after Hurricane Ian


Hurricane Ian continues to strain Florida's health care system more than a week after it tore through the state. Some hospitals in its path are still closed after flooding and high winds damaged their buildings. Others struggled without running water. The disruption has forced nearby facilities to pick up the slack. WUSF's Stephanie Colombini visited a hospital in Sarasota County, where the federal government has stepped in to help.

STEPHANIE COLOMBINI, BYLINE: Health workers are bustling around a large tent that's taken over a parking lot at Sarasota Memorial Hospital in Venice. Machines beep as patients on stretchers are wheeled through cramped aisleways. Dr. Kyle Garner is an administrator.

KYLE GARNER: It's been absolute chaos, but surprisingly controlled chaos.

COLOMBINI: The hospital is about an hour north of Fort Myers, which took the brunt of Hurricane Ian, but there was also heavy flooding nearby.

GARNER: Many of the medical offices and hospitals really sustained a significant amount of damage. It left a lot of the people south of us without any access to medical care. So we really became the closest institution.

COLOMBINI: Garner says the ER typically sees about a hundred patients a day. Now they're seeing two to three hundred. Fortunately, help arrived just days after the storm.

JACKY NALLY: So this is our triage and waiting area.

COLOMBINI: Nurse Jacky Nally is in charge of this pop-up clinic. It's staffed by 37 people who make up a disaster medical assistance team. During catastrophes like hurricanes, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deploys these teams. There are several in Florida right now. Nally's hails from Boston.

J NALLY: I love the opportunity to help others and to be able to contribute something to those that are in need.

COLOMBINI: Like the rest of the team, Nally has a day job back home, but she's been working in disaster zones for three decades. Her son, Craig, a physician assistant, is also here. He says they're treating injuries they often see after hurricanes - things like broken bones or chainsaw wounds from cleanup efforts gone wrong and infections people get from wading through germ-riddled floodwater. Craig said he just gave antibiotics and tetanus shots to a couple who'd been trapped in their home for days.

CRAIG NALLY: They have lost everything, and they just kept saying, we're just happy that, you know, we have each other and our kids are safe. And it was, you know, very powerful to hear.

COLOMBINI: They treat kids here, too. Pediatrician Ed Chung says they try to make them comfortable despite the noise and crowds.

ED CHUNG: You know, for example, one of our staff members had a birthday during this deployment, and so we got some balloons. And those balloons have steadily been going to pediatric patients along the way.

COLOMBINI: Holding one of those balloons was 3-year-old Joey. He lay in a bed, being cradled by his mom, Mariah Murray. Joey got nipped by the family dog after the storm.

JOEY: My birthday.

MARIAH MURRAY: Not your birthday, you goof. It's your birthday balloon.

JOEY: No, my birthday.

MURRAY: Something to keep you distracted.

COLOMBINI: Murray works in an assisted living facility that got partially flooded by Ian. Between her job and her son's injury, it's been hard, but she doesn't mind the tent.

MURRAY: I didn't expect them to have a secondary place set up, but it actually has worked really well 'cause normally, we'd be sitting in a waiting room waiting. But we're not. We're already being taken care of.

COLOMBINI: Dr. Garner with the hospital says the disaster team has taken the pressure off. His staff can now focus on caring for the sickest patients and transfer others further north to hospitals that were less affected.

GARNER: You know, we've been operating at 130, even as high as 160 patients in a hospital that only has 110 beds. So getting those patients out to other facilities that can really provide them care is what we've been focused on.

COLOMBINI: But even with the outside help, the entire region's health system will be struggling to treat patients for weeks or even months.

For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Colombini in Venice, Fla. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Stephanie Colombini joined WUSF Public Media in December 2016 as Producer of Florida Matters, WUSF’s public affairs show. She’s also a reporter for WUSF’s Health News Florida project.