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A very hot time at the Indian River Medical Center


It was early last Saturday evening when the air-conditioning system at Indian River Medical Center – a system that serves the Emergency Room, the Intensive Care Unit, the Respiratory unit, and most of the hospital – began grinding to a halt.

In the hours that followed, as temperatures in the hospital began to rise, the Emergency Room began turning away all patients except those with stroke symptoms.

By Sunday morning, all ambulances were being diverted to Sebastian River Hospital, Lawnwood in Fort Pierce, or St. Mary’s in West Palm Beach.

The hospital ceased using its CT scan and MRI equipment – which also require cooling – and began calling county ambulances to transport patients in need of imaging across the street to Vero Radiology.

Sunday night, sweltering hospital employees were saying the cooling system was not expected to be fixed before Monday, forcing them to figure out how to nurse more than 100 patients – some of them critically ill – through a second night and into a third day of heat.  A hospital spokesman announced, meanwhile, that all surgeries, special procedures and endoscopies scheduled for Monday were cancelled.

Monday, when it became clear an early fix was unlikely, empty ambulances started arriving at the hospital to take patients away.  As of mid-afternoon, the hospital – which currently has 245 available beds – was down to 84 patients. 

Some 24 hours after the problems began, hospital spokesperson Lewis Clark said an underground water pipe that sends water to the chillers in the air conditioning system “was discovered to be busted,” and workers – after failing to patch it – were attempting to install a temporary bypass line.

The broken pipe, which is under the hospital floor, was installed over 37 years ago.

Monday afternoon, huge flat bed trucks delivered 30 ton and larger AC units, rented from Carrier and not dependent on chilled water, to the hospital, and the installation of these temporary units began at about 4 PM.

The cooler air could not come soon enough for the hospital’s remaining patients and staff.

During the day Sunday, staff rushed to put fans and small portable coolers in the Intensive Care Unit and Respiratory Unit, but all other patients were left to sweat it out in hospital rooms with sealed windows.

Nurses scooped ice into plastic bags and rolled ice in towels to press against the necks and foreheads of patients, as temperatures in the rooms began to climb.

By early afternoon, a sweaty paramedic in the ER said he was “too hot and exhausted to talk,” and a drenched ER employee described the situation as “a nightmare,” as she gestured toward a dozen patients slumped in chairs, glistening with sweat in the Emergency Room lobby.

“It’s even hotter in the back,” she said.

Because the ER’s main wall is two stories of glass facing west, the department took quite a beating as the day wore on.

 As temperatures outdoors hit 87 degrees, room temperatures inside the ER and on the floors rose to between 82 and 85 degrees.

Doctors and nurses fielded requests for discharges and transfers. Patients’ families dashed out to buy fans and icy drinks.

Word spread that the air conditioning was still working in the Post Chapel and family members began flocking there for a few minutes of relief.

“How could this happen?” they asked one another. One family member worried aloud over what effect it could have on patients with staph infections or bedsores.

“Isn’t this really unhealthy?” she asked.

Julie Hewitt of Sebastian, who was staying with her grandfather, said her grandmother had asked family members to spell her with four-hour shifts because it was too hot for anyone to stay longer.

“But too bad for my poor grandpa,” said Hewitt.

Trena Jackson went between the rooms of her mother on the fourth floor and her stepdad on the fifth floor, making sure they had ice packs, then rushed out Sunday afternoon to buy fans. 

“You would think there would be some kind of plan in place to get this fixed faster,” she said.

Meanwhile at Walk-In Care Pointe West, which is owned by the hospital, a dozen Emergency Room patients sent there with minor injuries were being treated by Emergency Room physicians Monday afternoon. 

Walk-In Care Sebastian, also owned by the hospital, was treating other diverted emergency patients.