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Emergency rooms swamped in Wilma’s wake

Six days after Hurricane Wilma, Florida's hospitals — for now the only source of medical care in some communities — are swamped with routine medical problems.
Nurse Valerie Cottingham, right, aids Bernard Rosen, 87, at a medical assistance tent on Sunday at the Westside Regional Medical Center in Plantation, Fla. Wilfredo Lee / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

While helping his mother clean up her yard after Hurricane Wilma, 41-year-old Tim Swett aggravated an existing back problem, sending him in search of a doctor.

He went to an emergency room and waited five hours before leaving. It wasn’t until he tried another hospital, where disaster teams were set up in tents to handle minor injuries, that he saw a doctor.

Six days after Hurricane Wilma, more than 1 million people are still without power and many doctors offices have been closed for a week. That leaves hospitals — now the only source of medical care in some communities — swamped with routine medical problems.

“You can’t get any regular doctors on the phone,” said Swett. “You can’t get anything filled.”

To ease the crunch, the Federal Emergency Management Agency set up disaster medical assistance teams at four hospitals to help people with minor injuries, prescription medicine or those trying to follow up on routine medical care. The services are free.

At Westside Regional Medical Center in Plantation, a team had seen 190 patients — including Swett — by Sunday morning after opening Thursday. The hospital saw double the amount of normal traffic in the days after Wilma hit, said Chief Executive Earl H. Denning.

“They were being overrun,” said Bill Wallace, who is commanding a team of 35 doctors, nurses and others working out of four tents set up in the hospital’s parking lot.

Hospital access a ‘godsend’
Edward Grant, 58, of Lauderdale Lakes, said he would have gone to his regular doctor for treatment of a boil, but the office doesn’t have electricity and was damaged by the storm. He made his second trip Sunday to the tents and barely had to wait before being seen. On Tuesday, he spent 14 hours in an emergency room at another hospital.

“It’s been a godsend,” Grant said. “Emergency rooms are still packed. The service here has been great.”

People dependent on oxygen or those needing regular dialysis were forced to go to the hospital when their power was out, said Kerting Baldwin, a spokeswoman for the Memorial Healthcare System, which includes five hospitals in Broward County. Almost a week after the storm, some dialysis centers have yet to reopen.

“The hospitals don’t stop running,” Baldwin said. “We do whatever it takes.”

Wilma was the eighth hurricane to strike or pass by Florida in 15 months. The storm killed 21 people in Florida, and 38 overall.

Florida Power & Light, the state’s largest electric utility, said some areas might not get their power back until Nov. 22, two days before Thanksgiving. But in a sign of progress, 2.2 million customers that lost power after the hurricane were back online Sunday, the company said.

By Sunday afternoon, state officials said about 2,000 people remained in emergency shelters, most in Palm Beach and Broward counties. Public schools in Broward, Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties remained closed.