HCA North Florida Hospital shutdown: ‘It’s been a disaster’

Eric Lawson takes the oath of office to join the GRU Authority board in October.
Eric Lawson, HCA North Florida Hospital's CEO, takes the oath of office to join the GRU Authority board in October.
Photo by Seth Johnson

Jami Thomas was in excruciating pain. Her upper body felt like it was “on fire” after she fell in her home, breaking her arm in multiple places, ripping it from the socket in her shoulder on Jan. 18.   

Thomas was rushed to HCA North Florida Hospital—but was not rushed into surgery. The hospital had put all surgeries on hold due to undisclosed “operational” and “equipment” issues. Thomas would have to wait.  

Hospital staff gave Thomas three days of pain medication and sent her home, but it would be three weeks before she got the surgery she needed. That finally happened on Thursday—at another hospital 48 miles away.  

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HCA North Florida Hospital has resumed performing surgeries at a fraction of its normal rate, and only for emergencies or patients so severely ill they can’t wait.   

Internal messages obtained by Mainstreet Daily News reveal that HCA North Florida hopes to have its operating rooms functioning at 50% of usual elective surgery capacity beginning next week. After halting all surgeries on Jan. 17 and directing Alachua County Fire Rescue (ACFR) to take trauma and heart attack patients elsewhere, the hospital resumed emergency surgeries a day later.  

Hospital CEO Eric Lawson wrote in a Jan. 30 email to “medical staff colleagues” that elective surgeries would not be scheduled before Feb. 9, if then, “at which point we will be re-evaluating our schedule.” 

Lawson, a Gainesville Regional Utilities Authority member, declined to answer questions when Mainstreet approached him at Wednesday’s board meeting in Gainesville. 

“I’m here to do my duty to the authority tonight,” Lawson said.  

He would not say how many surgeries have been canceled at his hospital, to what extent the hospital has recovered or what, specifically, led to the extraordinary suspension of operations. 

“I would refer you to our communications office,” Lawson said. 

As Mainstreet first reported Monday, Florida’s Agency for Health Care Administration (AHCA) is investigating the hospital’s suspension of surgeries and the circumstances surrounding it. Mobile response teams from Steris Instrument Management Services, a company that repairs surgical tools and instruments, descended on the hospital. Technicians on the scene told Mainstreet they were working to repair “probably thousands” of instruments for “pock marks, scrapes” or other defects.  

ACFR Chief Harold Theus said the hospital called a halt to surgeries due to “sterilization” problems. Fresh Take Florida, a news service of the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications, quoted some surgeons as saying instruments with “blood and tissue” still on them had been delivered to surgical theaters, and that at least one surgery was called off even as the patient lay on the operating table.  

Jami Thomas’ husband, Mark, said his wife left HCA North Florida with her three-day supply of pain medication and only a promise that the hospital would follow up.  

“They sent her home with a sling,” Thomas, 48, said. “They said that was all they could do.” 

He said his wife experienced the worst pain of her life after the fall. For three weeks, he said, she endured “the grinding and thumping of her upper arm moving around, unattached to her shoulder.” 

Thomas said the couple was not offered the option of going to UF Health Shands Hospital or another local facility to have her arm and shoulder put back together.     

Surgical scheduling chaos at HCA has left both patients and staff reeling.  

“It’s been a disaster,” said one long-time administrative assistant for a major medical practice. “My surgeon has never seen anything like this happen before.”  

Mainstreet granted the person anonymity because staff members have received warnings not to speak to the press. 

“I don’t want to lose my job,” she said.  

The administrative assistant got a call from the hospital just before 5 p.m. on Jan. 17, telling her she needed to cancel all surgeries for the next day.  

“I had confirmed all of them with the hospital just a few hours earlier, and there was no mention of any problem,” she said.  

None of her practice’s canceled surgeries had been rescheduled as of Wednesday, and she said that the hospital had not responded to several requests for clarification on what to tell patients.  

“Some of the patients we had to cancel had family members who came from out of town to be with them,” she said.   

In an email obtained by Mainstreet Daily News, HCA North Florida’s chief medical officer, Dr. Sherrie Somers, informed doctors and their staffs that the hospital would allow only “CV [cardiovascular], Urgent malignancy and Urgent/Emergent” surgeries to be scheduled beginning Feb. 5, but with prior approval. She said a “Physician Advisory Panel” would determine whether a patient qualified. 

Dr. Sherrie Somers
HCA North Florida handout Dr. Sherrie Somers

Somers, who took her position in August, said the plan was to achieve “a fair and equitable” use of operating room time and that surgeons would be allowed only half their usual allotment. 

Reached by phone, Dr. Somers declined to take questions.  

“How did you get my number?” she said. “You know you should call our PR [public relations] person. You know you should not be calling this number.” 

Communications personnel at HCA North Florida Hospital and its owner, HCA Healthcare Inc., have declined to answer specific questions posed by Mainstreet in multiple emails and phone calls since the surgical crisis was revealed. North Florida’s first public acknowledgement that there even was a problem at the hospital came after inquiries from Fresh Take Florida, which went unanswered until its story published, according to Ted Bridis, UF senior lecturer in investigative reporting.

John “Trip” Farmer, an HCA spokesperson, replied to an inquiry from Mainstreet Thursday, offering nothing beyond what the company has previously said—that it is actively working to reschedule surgeries and that “the well-being of our patients remains our highest priority.” 

HCA has faced consistent complaints that it puts profits ahead of patient care, including in a series of stories NBC News published last year. On Feb. 1 the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services informed HCA’s Mission Hospital in Asheville, North Carolina, that it would lose federal funding if it did not remedy deficiencies in six critical areas by February.  

HCA has steadfastly denied or downplayed allegations of shortchanging patient care at its facilities, insisting it puts patients first. In the case of its Bayonet Point Hospital near Tampa, HCA attributed very public complaints to “normal tactics” in union negotiations. However, AHCA found that the Bayonet facility did not maintain adequate staffing levels. 

Farmer did not say when North Florida expects to return to normal operations, or how many patients it has sent to its Ocala hospital or UF Health Shands in Gainesville. UF Health spokesperson Peyton Wesner said Shands does not track the number of patients referred by North Florida. 

When Jami Thomas was finally operated on in Ocala, the surgery took the better part of three hours. Trauma surgeon Dr. James McFadden of Ocala’s Orthopaedic Institute put her arm and shoulder back together with parts, including a stainless-steel ball and synthetic socket.  

McFadden declined, through a spokesperson, to comment for this story. 

Mark Thomas had no complaints with his wife’s experience at HCA’s Ocala Hospital. He said after weeks of “despair” and being “lost in delays,” they “treated her very well. They took good care of her.”

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know has been impacted by, or has information about, the surgical shutdown at HCA Florida North Florida Hospital, please email editor@mainstreetdailynews.com or call 352-313-3192. 

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Charles Courtney

Another example of why “for profit” has no business being involved in our health care industry.

Last edited 9 days ago by Charles Courtney
Mark Thomas

This is a terrible situation all around. I do thank the direct providers of care – the doctors, nurses, techs, and others on the floor – for the caring and compassionate treatment that my wife received from them. God willing, Jami will heal and recover, thanks be to Him and to those who directly treated her.

Thanks also to Mr. Nelson, who has uncovered root causes for this unconscionable failure that has put so many people at risk. His reporting will hopefully keep this from happening again.

Tracy

Sounds like a lawsuit to me. Finding human remains on the surgical equipment is not good and who knows how long this has been happening and how many people had bacterial infections from surgeons using this equipment.

I’m sorry that this lady and God only knows how many other people were left in pain for weeks due to not having surgery when needed. Again lack of medical care and not directed to another hospital is just putting money above people. It’s just sad.

Mary Smith

I used to live in Ocala and Asheville. Now entirely Asheville. Go to the link in the story, to the investigative journalists’ coverage in the Asheville Watchdog, and bury yourselves in the documentation and hell which is HCA. I can’t believe they are allowed to own hospitals. We are in “immediate jeopardy”–a state agency just declared the hospital too dangerous to operate. Our AG is suing HCA. It’s the same with HCA everywhere. The ED is worse than 3rd world horror show.

JeffK

HCA Ocala has been awarded, so they say. I hope it’s just a local matter here. It’d be nice if the hospital here would just explain the situation. Was it human error, faulty sterilization machines, insurance companies, etc?

John Donald

Anyone impacted by this should be leaving the hospital reviews on Google so other people can be fairly warned on what’s happening here.

Theresa

It has been very interesting as I need a total shoulder replacement, but not under these circumstances. I am extremely hesitant now and my Dr. is fablous

Tina Stoppelbein

This hospital is the worst, I became diabetic in 2018 and didn’t no anything about diabetes or had ever dealt with it in my life. Same for my husband. I had a heart attack and that’s when we discovered my being diabetic after a short stay in hospital, they handed us a yellow envelope full of printed off paperwork about diabetes and sent us home. We didn’t have a clue what to do or ev n how to do it. They said they didn’t have anybody there to show or explain anything to us.
We were so lost, frustrated & confused.

Vera

When I had back surgery at Bayonet Point last March, my nurse, never checks on me or gave me pain medicine. This was immediately post -op. She didn’t flush my IV’s, so they had to be replaced. When the charge nurse came to see me the next day I told her about my treatment the night before. Her response was, ‘perhaps this can be a training moment’. Not acceptable!

As a retired nurse, it’s terrifying to know that this hospital is the only level 1 trauma center for three counties and all cardiac emergencies are taken there!

I will never go there again. And I truly believe they should be shut down!

BILL Stengle

Question – WHY didn’t / don’t more patients simply get the procedures done elsewhere (Lake City, Shands, etc.) if these are so serious? Under the circumstances don’t carriers (even Medicaid) allow for these situation and allow changes for the point of care?

Rob Fisher

Excellent reporting.

Tana Silva

I agree completely, Rob. I’m glad to see Gary back in Gainesville and jumping right into real reporting. And glad for the venue Mainstreet provides him and commenters.

Gregory McGann

This has been a shocking story.. My heart goes out to this couple. It is difficult to imagine how agonizing those three weeks must have been. While there are undoubtedly excellent physicians, nurses and staff working at NF, the bottom line is that this facility is focused on their bottom line. Health care should not be a profit making business Virtually every other country in the world has figured that out.

S. Comfort

This hospital is awful. My dad went in, they told us everything was good… he ended up DEAD, out of nowhere. No one called us and it was nearly impossible to get through to anyone or have anyone call us back. We finally got through to find out he DIED! Then they sent his body off because they had no room to store him, then no one knew who picked him up. They lost his personal items, and when they were found, his cell phone was destroyed because they threw it in a bag with an open bottle of body wash. While he was there, he requested a case manager… that never showed up. His DNR and power of attorney was never filed and now the banks are trying to take away my mom’s house! Our family is going through a nightmare due to their incompetence. This is no surprise.

Holly Lutes

My god!! If you don’t do anything else please please call an attorney like right now. Today! That will stop the sezing of your mothers home as well.

April

This hospital does put profit over patients that’s how they helped to kill my mother. They also won’t hire older out of retirement like myself who has been an RN for over 30 years. I wouldn’t take my pet rat there for treatment.