Tom Johnson sat in a room with his wife of 62 years, who is completely paralyzed except for her eyes, along with more than a dozen other evacuees at a Spartanburg nursing home Thursday.
Johnson wanted to take his wife, who is suffering from end-stage Parkinson’s disease, back home to her nursing home in Summerville. But he couldn’t.
She is one of more than 2,200 who have been evacuated from 113 health care facilities along the S.C. coast as the state braces for Tropical Storm Florence. As the hurricane threatened extreme storm surges and severe flooding Monday, S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster issued a mandatory evacuation, closing seven hospitals, reducing operations in eight others and forcing nursing homes to find facilities out of harm’s way to house their residents.
But some, including Johnson, say McMaster made the wrong call to evacuate.
“We need the governor’s permission to let us do what makes sense for us,” said Johnson, who thinks Summerville will be completely spared from the storm’s damage.
The evacuation experience for the couple, both in their 80s, has been a far cry from the comforts to which they’re accustomed
Johnson’s wife, Young Sook Johnson, has a private room at the nursing home in Summerville where she’s been for several months. But as an evacuee at Valley Falls Terrace in Spartanburg, she is sharing a large room — probably a common area or dining hall, Johnson said — with about 15 or 17 others. Paralyzed except for her eyes and unable to swallow, she has been given a bed because she must sit upright. But several evacuees had to sleep on mattresses on the floor, Johnson said.
“They have them (mattresses). Thank, God,” he said.
At the end of each day, Johnson will go to a hotel room he’s renting for about $170 a night, leaving her with people he doesn’t know.
Johnson does not criticize the treatment his wife was receiving. “These people are doing the very best they can. A bunch of heroes here,” he said of the three or four health care workers tending to his wife and others in the room.
But according to Johnson, it’ll all be for naught. Dorchester County should not have been evacuated.
“Under the current circumstances, the likelihood that anything but the remnant (of Florence) will touch anything near where that health facility is in Summerville” is low, he said, “Yet, the Governor’s Office isn’t even listening to me.”
Tommy Crosby, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Health and Environmental Control, said his agency must follow orders from the governor to evacuate people in nursing home care when a major storm approaches. While each nursing home must have an evacuation plan when it seeks a license from DHEC, those plans vary, he said. Those plans are executed by the nursing homes after the governor orders an evacuation, he said.
“DHEC as an agency was in contact with all of our licensed facilities before the evacuation notice from the governor was issued,’’ Crosby told The State. “We’ve been in contact with all of them constantly ... whether it be helping them get assets, ambulances, transportation, any medical stuff that they may need to get them to a certain place.”
Still, the transition from a home that a person is used to can be difficult for anyone.
The Heritage at Lowman in Lexington County made arrangements to accommodate 174 nursing home residents and staff from a Mount Pleasant home this week. It’s the second time they’ve moved inland from a hurricane in three years.
“We recognize it is an inconvenience for many, but we try and make sure the people are as comfortable as possible,’’ said Denise Dickinsen, a vice president with Lutheran Homes of South Carolina, which oversees both the Mount Pleasant and Lexington County homes. “This is day four for us. We are all just trying to make the very best of it and keep everybody’s spirits high.’’
Among those busing to Lexington County from Mount Pleasant was a woman who will celebrate her 102nd birthday this weekend. The home is planning a party for her, Dickinsen said.
“We made sure she got her hair done yesterday,’’ Dickinsen said.
‘Everybody always second guesses’
Valley Falls Terrace, where Johnson’s wife was sent, did not return a reporter’s calls on Thursday or Friday.
But Johnson’s experience isn’t unique, according to Randal Lee, president of the S.C. Health Care Association, an advocacy group of health care facilities that provide long-term nursing care.
Nursing home residents must be evacuated to nursing homes — facilities that can provide the same level of care patients are accustomed to receiving, Lee said.
Meanwhile, “occupancy (in nursing homes) in South Carolina is over 90 percent at all times,” so rooms used for other purposes must be converted to house evacuees, he said.
Growth of nursing facilities along the coast combined with the evacuation of inland counties, not just coastal ones, also led to high demand for nursing homes, he said.
While evacuations are inconvenient and stressful for nursing home residents, many advocacy organizations for the elderly say they’re necessary to prevent potentially deadly situations.
- After Hurricane Irma struck Florida last year, power outages created sweltering conditions in a Hollywood nursing home, killing a dozen elderly residents.
- In Dickinson, Texas following Hurricane Harvey, 20 residents were rescued from waist-deep floodwater in their nursing home.
- During Katrina in 2005, 35 residents drowned in one New Orleans-area nursing home.
As to critics who said the evacuation was premature, Lee said to consider the work that must be done to move nursing home residents. It takes two to two-and-a-half days to do the evacuation, to load the residents with their supplies and medications and decide which staff are going with them, he said.
“At one time the storm surge predicted in Charleston was 15 feet. When the governor did this Monday, this was projected to be a possible Category 5 storm with winds up to 160 miles an hour,” he said.
“Everybody always second guesses a governor, but they wouldn’t second guess him if something went wrong.”