September 24, 2021 by Peter B. Laird
Fishermen’s Community Hospital: Rising from the Rubble of Hurricane Irma
When Hurricane Irma roared through the Florida Keys in 2017, it damaged or destroyed more than 4,000 homes, mostly between Cudjoe Key and Marathon, where the Category 4 storm also severely damaged the 60-year-old Fishermen’s Community Hospital, forcing its closure.
“After the storm it was horrible, overwhelming. Our community was destroyed. People were living in tents, in hotel rooms. Some were living in their cars,” recalls Candy Fincke, vice president of professional services for both Fishermen’s Community Hospital and Mariners Hospital, fighting back tears. “It was so hard. Many of our employees did not have homes, yet they came to work. They put aside their own problems to help others.”
For Baptist Health, which had purchased Fishermen’s Community Hospital only weeks before Irma hit, getting the hospital back up and running was essential.
“Rebuilding the hospital from the ground up after it was damaged in Hurricane Irma was an absolute necessity for the long-term health of the community,” says Cherie Dunford, R.N., who was born at Fishermen’s nearly 40 years ago and has worked there most of her adult life. “Without quick access to medical care nearby, lives could be at risk.”
Concern for her neighbors drew Ms. Dunford back to Fishermen’s almost immediately after Irma had passed. Upon returning to their home after evacuating for the storm, she and her family found most of their belongings destroyed and their home uninhabitable, severely damaged by flooding. For the next month, they lived at a fire station until they were able to move into a friend’s apartment.
Still, like many Fishermen’s Community Hospital employees who put aside their own hardships for the sake of serving the community, Ms. Dunford was eager to get back to helping others. “I just wanted to go back to some kind of normalcy and help the community,” she recalls. “People here really needed a hospital. They needed medical care.”
Mike Mathias, who has worked at Fishermen’s since 1970, struggles to find words to describe what he saw inside the old hospital in the wake of Hurricane Irma. As facilities supervisor at Fishermen’s, he was one of the few employees allowed inside the damaged building once the storm had passed. He’s glad others don’t have those images in their memory, especially since the place was, for many longtime employees such as himself, as much a home as it was a job. “It was heartbreaking,” recalls Mr. Mathias, who lost his home and all of his possessions in the storm. “There was water damage everywhere. The windows were blown out. There were cracks in the building, heavy damage to the roof. And the mold smell – it’s hard to describe.”
Fishermen’s is not only an integral part of the Middle Keys, it’s been an anchor in Mr. Mathias’ life. His late wife of 47 years, Nancy, worked there, too, in physical therapy. “We had some good times, that’s for sure,” he says. “The employees all stuck together. We played volleyball on the beach, had picnics and holiday parties. We went bowling together. It was like family.”
Germaine Shannon, R.N., a longtime resident of Marathon, has spent almost her entire career at Fishermen’s, starting as an aide when she was studying nursing at Keys Community College in 1994. Today, as a hospital shift supervisor, she oversees staffing and workflow in patient care.
Before Hurricane Irma made landfall, Ms. Shannon and her husband had evacuated, as directed by authorities. When they were able to return, they were shocked. “It was devastating to see what happened,” she recalls. “There was so much scum and dirt and sand everywhere.” The hospital was too badly damaged to reopen, she recalls. But she was relieved when Baptist Health immediately mobilized to maintain post-storm healthcare services in the area.
There were concerns at first that Baptist Health, which had purchased Fishermen’s only weeks earlier, might back away from the community, given all the challenges. “After the storm, everyone was hurting,” said Ms. Shannon. “What would people have done if Fishermen’s was not here? We had to have a hospital — we had to.”
But when then-CEO Rick Freeburg gathered the staff in the parking lot to outline plans for continued services, there was a renewed sense of confidence. “I knew then that we were going to make it,” Ms. Shannon says. “It would be a big transition, but I knew we would be okay.”
Despite extraordinarily difficult conditions, Fishermen’s resumed medical services 16 days after Irma, in a field hospital of tents and trailers erected in the parking lot. Soon after, work began on a $5.4 million, temporary modular hospital adjacent to where the old hospital had stood for 60 years. It opened about a year later and has served the community’s needs while a permanent, all-new facility is constructed on the site. Once the new hospital opens this summer, the modular hospital will be removed.
“The community has been well-served by the modular hospital,” Ms. Fincke says, “but the real goal — the dream — is the new, $43.7 million, state-of-the-art building that soon will become the permanent home of the new Fishermen’s Community Hospital.”
When Ms. Shannon and her co-workers watched the last wall of the old hospital come down to make room for the new structure, many of them shed tears. “It was mixed feelings, because we knew we were getting a new hospital with the best of everything, she recalls. “But it was very emotional – I worked there so long.”
Ms. Shannon recorded those moments on her phone to share with her mother, who also worked at Fishermen’s but moved out of the Keys when she retired. “There was so much history in that building,” she says. “But life brings you challenges and you move forward.”