Post-Irma nursing home tragedy shines light on elder care

Nursing home tragedies - deaths and serious injuries - occur with alarming frequency in Texas and across the country.

Hurricane Irma brought untold destruction to areas of Florida and throughout the southern U.S., just as Hurricane Harvey brought to much of Texas in the weeks prior and Hurricane Maria to Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In addition to historically high property damage, there were injuries and deaths with each storm. Among the deceased victims were 11 residents in a sweltering nursing home outside Miami. This almost-unspeakably tragic event has garnered worldwide attention, and is shining a national spotlight on the issues of elder abuse and neglect.

Following the hurricanes, millions of residents were without power. For those already in poor health - like those ill or infirm enough to need live-in nursing care - prolonged exposure to high temperatures and humidity are potentially fatal. Add in the fact that power outages can knock out critical medical components like oxygen regulators, cardiac monitors, ventilators, medication pumps and monitored intravenous feeding tubes, and it becomes clearer how this tragedy happened.

Local physicians discovered the poor conditions at the facility after seeing several distressed patients arrive in the emergency room at a nearby hospital. Investigators estimate that temperatures inside climbed to about 110 degrees after damage to the cooling system's power supply. Backup generators apparently could not adequately moderate the climate in the 152-bed nursing home.

Some residents were discovered dead in their rooms, and several more died shortly thereafter. More than 40 others needed advanced medical care. Authorities transferred all of the 100-plus surviving residents to other facilities and hospitals. The facility was cited for building code and safety violations, and has since been shuttered.

Severe consequences of abuse and neglect

The events surrounding these deaths must be a warning for all nursing facilities across the country. Much of Texas sees temperatures well into the 90s for more than half of the year. Disaster plans - including food, water and medication for all residents, a protocol to maintain staffing levels, evacuation procedures, and backup generators to maintain life support and climate control systems - are of vital importance for all care homes across the country.

A lack of oversight over the patients likely contributed to the tragic events in Florida. Door-to-door checks to ensure patient welfare may have discovered issues before it was too late. The investigation into the matter is still ongoing.

The vulnerable adults who live in residential care facilities (known as "long term care facilities" or "LTCs" in Texas) rely on the skill and diligence of staff for their very health, safety and well-being. When caregivers fail in their duties, residents pay the price.

Abundant current federal and state regulations exist to strictly hold nursing facilities responsible for patient health and safety, particularly where abuse or neglect is concerned. Inspections often reveal key issues that could impact patient safety, but penalties are either insufficient to inspire true change or go unenforced.

When nursing home facility coordinators and staff fail to properly care for patients with serious conditions that require round-the-clock assistance, lives are at stake. If you lost a loved one due to suspected nursing home abuse or neglect, you may have a legal cause of action. Contact the skilled nursing home abuse attorneys at the San Antonio offices of Marynell Maloney Law Firm, PLLC to learn more. Call them locally at 210-446-0035, or toll free at 800-717-6011, or contact them online. They collect no attorney fees unless your case is successful, and Spanish-speaking services are available.