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Hurricane evacuations halted for lack of ambulances at VA's Young center

As many as 30 patients who should have been evacuated from the C.W. Bill Young VA Medical Center were left behind during Hurricane Irma because the hospital and Pinellas County couldn't agree on where they should go.

Young center officials blame the county, saying it promised ambulances that never arrived. County officials disagree, saying they did get some patients moved but couldn't drive all the way to hospitals in Gainesville and Lake City as the Young center had requested.

Pinellas County and VA officials said they are working now to make sure this problem doesn't happen again.

"Discussions with the county about how cooperation can be improved in the future are ongoing," Young center spokesman Jason Dangel said.

The shortage of ambulances points up a broader atmosphere of confusion over evacuations at the hospital, with a nursing supervisor at one point bursting into tears, according to a patient and staff members interviewed.

The hospital and another patient dispute that, saying operations remained smooth. All told, 110 patients and 56 staff members were transferred — some in vehicles pulled from the hospital campus and from other VA centers — while 96 patients and 400 staffers stayed behind.

Lorraine Johnson-Mitchell was one of the patients scheduled to go but left behind. The 59-year-old Army veteran was admitted Friday, Sept. 8, with double pneumonia.

The hospital staff, Johnson-Mitchell said, were "rushing around and really didn't know which way to go. It was not like all of a sudden the hurricane was just there. Those that needed to be evacuated should have been, Thursday and Friday."

Irma ended up causing relatively little damage when it hit the Tampa Bay area Monday, Sept. 11, but as it bore down, emergency operations officials told people in evacuation Levels A and B to leave. The Young center is in Level B.

Johnson-Mitchell, who lost both legs to a blood disorder and who also requires dialysis, was scheduled for transfer Sept. 9 to the VA center in Gainesville.

She was left behind, Dangel said, because a county emergency medical services crew that was supposed to transport her "had to attend to another emergency."

"Many more patients would have been transferred out if assets promised were received,'' Dangel said. "But that did not happen."

Dangel said that at 8 a.m. on Sept. 9, the county promised the Young center 15 ambulances to take patients to Gainesville. The company providing the service called at 2:30 p.m. to confirm.

But the county called back later to say no more ambulances would come, he said. As a result, as many as 30 patients were left behind.

County officials tell a different story.

Once the Level B evacuation order was issued Sept. 9, hospital officials contacted Sunstar, the county ambulance provider, about transporting patients, said James G. Fogarty, bureau director with Pinellas County Safety and Emergency Services.

Sunstar sent 15 ambulances to the Young center and transported 10 patients to the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital in Tampa and to other local hospitals, Fogarty said.

The Young center asked that patients be transported to VA centers in Gainesville and Lake City, but that wasn't "safe or feasible at the time of the request," he said.

With a hurricane bearing down, the county couldn't leave itself uncovered by ambulance service, Fogarty said. In addition, traffic volume on Interstate 75 already had grown heavy and there wasn't time to transport dozens of patients that far, he said.

County officials as well as officials with the Florida Department of Health in Pinellas spoke with a Young center coordinator several times and indicated patients could be moved to Haley or other local centers, he said.

Young center officials then opted to shelter long-term care residents in place, so the ambulances were reassigned to evacuate two other locations — Kindred Hospital and Florida Hospital North Pinellas, Fogarty said.

Two Young center nursing staff members contacted by the Times also provided a version of events different from the hospital's.

"I was shocked at the late and partial evacuation of the hospital and that Pinellas County guidelines were not followed," said Christine Wolf, a nurse who has been at the Young center for more than a dozen years.

She said she and her son, who were planning to stay at the hospital during the storm, left Saturday about 8:30 p.m.

"I wasn't willing to go against what the governor was saying — to evacuate those zones, immediately," said Wolf, "but the hospital wanted to wait until the last minute. Then it was frightening."

Amanda Haygood, a certified nursing assistant who has worked at the Young center three years, called the atmosphere chaotic and unorganized at first.

"The nurse manager was there, ripping and running and burst into tears at one point," Haygood said. "I would say everybody was unhappy, but we were trying to make do."

Johnson-Mitchell, the patient left behind, said, "They are acting like things went smoothly, but they forgot me and left me in the hospital when I should have been moved out. Things could have been handled a lot better."

Dangel with the VA said the hospital is sorry Johnson-Mitchell could not be evacuated but insisted she never was in danger. The hospital building is not hurricane-rated because of its age but windows have been replaced to meet current codes and endure sustained winds up to 165 mph. The hospital is 14 feet above sea level, he added.

Dangel called the concerns raised by Wolf and Haygood "ridiculous and unfounded." He said hundreds of employees worked on hurricane preparation, response and recovery — including evacuation.

"The situation did not dictate an earlier decision," he said, "as it is not ideal to transfer highly acute patients unless absolutely necessary."

Another patient, Air Force veteran Stepheni Long, 46, who was admitted for a blood clot and stayed during the storm, agreed with Dangel's assessment of the hospital's performance.

"They did everything very well," Long said. "I have to admit I was pretty impressed."

The Young center was one of two VA hospitals in Florida that transferred patients ahead of Irma. The Miami VA hospital transferred three patients Sept. 8, said Mary Kay Rutan, a VA spokeswoman.

A key factor in the decision to shelter-in-place with remaining Young center patients was the hospital's capacity to operate up to seven days without outside water, power, or other services, Dangel said — "capabilities that had been built into our emergency plans."

Contact Howard Altman at [email protected] or (813) 225-3112. Follow @haltman

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