Almost two years has passed since Hurricane Irma slammed into the Florida Keys as a Category 4 storm with 130 mph winds. Cudjoe Key is located about 30 miles east of Key West and is where the storm made landfall on an early Sunday morning on September 10, 2017. Many who evacuated could only watch and wonder what they would return to and when. Even though the storm is long gone, rebuilding continues up and down the Keys. Situated in the Middle Keys 30 miles to the east of Cudjoe Key sits Marathon. A city spread over a few Keys just above the Seven Mile Bridge and home to close to 9,000 people, Marathon has an airport with one runway and one of the few hospitals in the Florida Keys.
Fisherman’s Hospital received its first patient in September of 1962 but almost to the day 55 years later, it was feared that it may never treat another patient again. “It didn’t look like there was much damage from the outside when we first landed,” said Cheryl Cottrell. Cottrell is the Chief Nursing Officer at Fisherman’s Hospital and like many residents in the Keys, evacuated before Irma arrived. Returning by helicopter she was the first one back to the hospital. Once she stepped inside, she knew the hospital would not be able to open.
“My main concern was how we would be able to serve the community because we weren’t going to be able to use the hospital,” said Cottrell. From standing water in the building to widespread water damage, it was clear they would not be able to use the building, so they moved the hospital to the parking lot. Rick Freeburg, CEO of Fisherman’s Hospital, was there for the recovery following Irma. “It was challenging times for sure,” Freeburg said.
With the airfield at Marathon able to handle C-130 cargo planes, relief was quick to return to the area. Taking advantage of the nearby airstrip, Fisherman’s Hospital was able to bring in supplies and open a temporary hospital in the parking lot in about two weeks following the storm. “It was a MASH unit,” says Freeburg. “A tent and these sea containers that had been converted into patient rooms.” From there the hospital converted into modular units complete with an emergency room, MRI machine, and even in-patient rooms. “It was a big deal for us and for them,” said Freeburg adding that on more than one occasion patients who had been treated would return to thank the hospital just for being there.
Laura Arbuckle is the In-House Patient Care Manager at the hospital. She was there to reopen the hospital following the storm but like many residents of the city, she did not have a home to return to when the work day was over. “You look around and you realize that all the people you are standing with are smiling,” Arbuckle said about the day the hospital reopened. “Some were living in tents with no water, didn’t have homes, and they all came to work.”
There is a sense of family now between those that lived through the aftermath of the storm and stayed there to open the hospital. “We did lose about 50% of the nurses but the ones that stayed are together forever,” said Arbuckle.
The demolition of the original Fisherman’s hospital will continue through the summer before construction of the permanent new hospital will begin later this year. Until then the modular units sitting just across the parking lot will act as the current community hospital.