For Hospital Heads, Slow Recovery is Still Progress

Schneider Regional Medical Center in May of 2019. (Kelsey Nowakowski photo)

One year after the passage of Hurricanes Irma and Maria, the territory’s project manager for disaster recovery issued a report in which contractor Witt O’Brien laid out a two-phase plan to restore the V.I. health care system, a plan backed by $50 million in federal funds. Now, two years later, that plan appears to have been stymied by a plodding review and approval process, but top officials at both the territory’s hospitals say they’re looking forward to making more progress than what has been seen so far.

Both Bernard Wheatley, chief executive officer at Schneider Regional Medical Center and Dyma Williams, chief executive at the Gov. Juan F.  Luis Hosptial say increasing the number of available beds and the availability of operating rooms tops their priority lists. That matches the priorities set in the 2018 Witt O’Brien report, “Transforming Through Recovery,” which said a Phase One priority was the re-establishment of acute care services.

But this is where the recovery tracks for the two hospitals diverge. An assessment of storm damage at Schneider Regional led the Federal Emergency Management Agency to declare its facilities could be repaired. The extent of damage at Juan Luis led FEMA to say St. Croix could start over with a brand new hospital.

FEMA spokesman Eric Adams has stated Schneider Regional has moved forward with repairs and submitted documentation of the work. By July 2018, Wheatley declared the St. Thomas hospital “at full service.” By March 2019, St. John’s Myrah Keating Smith Community Health Center opened the doors of a modular clinic and moved its staff out of the tiny corner clinic in Cruz Bay it shared with the Emergency Medical Service and the Department of Health.

The kidney dialysis unit on St. Thomas is up and running, serving 57 patients with room for three more. Most recently, the floor in the hospital emergency room was repaired in places where tiles were lifting up.

But, Wheatley said, the big jobs are still pending. “It’s an ongoing basis. We are in a continuing mode. The facility has not undergone any major repairs. Still under a temporary roof. (We) put a coating onto the damaged roof to make it water resistant,” he said.

This corresponds to the Phase One portion of the Witt O’Brien plan, calling for repairs to sections of damaged hospitals, allowing continuing delivery of essential services.

And permanent fixes for the Keating Clinic and the Charlotte Kimmelman Cancer Center are still in the “damage, description and dimensions” phase — something Wheatley calls “the three Ds.”

“We need to come to some conclusions to move forward. I have no answers for the community or the physicians as to when we can reopen the cancer center,” he said.

On St. Croix, Juan Luis Hospital Chief Williams spoke about developments she hopes will lead to reopening the cardiac care center. The damage wrought by Hurricane Maria forced the administration to move the operating room and other critical care units into the cardiac center.

That’s about to change as part of the Witt O’Brien Phase One restoration moves forward. Temporary modular operating rooms that were planned for installation in the first year after the storms, will be installed in year two.

Aside from providing up to four operating rooms, the modulars also have enough space to increase the hospital bed capacity from 46 to 118. “We lost the third floor, which reduced the in-patient bed capacity,” Wiliams said. “We’ve reduced the capacity significantly since Hurricane Maria.”

Once that step is completed, Juan Luis administrators say they want to resume interventional cardiology services, which were curtailed after the storms.

Previously installed modulars allowed the St. Croix hospital to restore its kidney dialysis center. The Witt O’Brien plan called this a temporary move. In Phase Two, project managers said, “temporary modular facilities will be replaced by interim hardened health care structures to reduce the vulnerability of the system to future storms until permanent facilities are designed and constructed.”

The St. Croix hospital chief made no mention of that step as she looked toward to the promise of a new, state-of-the-art hospital for the big island. FEMA has approved the replacement of the Juan F. Luis Hospital.

When that day will come, Williams said she was not willing to speculate.

For now, she said, delivery of new modular units and expanded hospital bed capacity will do. “We’re excited about getting some traction and moving forward,” she said.