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.
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.
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 email@example.com or call 352-313-3192.