The opening of the new Fishermen’s Community Hospital may be a huge milestone for the community, but for many residents it’s even more than that — it’s personal.
The new $43.7 million facility opened its doors to patients on June 7, almost four years after Hurricane Irma severely damaged the 60-year-old hospital’s original building, shutting it down permanently. Determined to serve the community, Baptist Health resumed providing medical services in the parking lot only 16 days after the Category 4 storm, first in a rudimentary field hospital of tents and trailers, and then in a temporary modular facility that served the area throughout the pandemic.
At age 93, longtime Marathon resident Dolores Larson is grateful that the hospital has persevered so that she and her neighbors don’t have to go far for medical care. Baptist Health, which had purchased the hospital only weeks before the storm hit, remained steadfast in their commitment to residents, she notes.
“They have done an amazing job making sure Fishermen’s remains an asset for this community, no question about that,” Ms. Larson says. “I admire the way they have taken care of this community. Even when they were in tents and trailers, nobody missed a beat.”
Ms. Larson was among the people who sought care at the field hospital in the months after the hurricane. While walking her dog, Buddy, she tripped and fell, hitting her head. Brought to Fishermen’s by ambulance, she was experiencing an irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, and also needed a neurologist for her head injury. The plan was to transfer her to Baptist Hospital in Miami for treatment, but Overseas Highway was closed down at the time due to a massive fire.
As they waited for the road to reopen, a Fishermen’s nurse stayed by Ms. Larson’s side, observing her carefully. “The nurse who was assigned to me could not have been more attentive,” Ms. Larson recalls. Although the conditions in the field hospital were challenging for the staff, she says, “I could not have been taken care of better.”
Ms. Larson’s case is a good illustration of how Fishermen’s Community Hospital provides critical access to healthcare. Without it, it could take up to an hour to reach the next nearest hospital in an emergency, and that’s under good circumstances. The new Fishermen’s hospital includes a helipad to airlift patients to the mainland, when needed, but that wasn’t necessary in Ms. Larson’s case. When the road reopened, she was transported by ambulance to Baptist Hospital. But she was grateful she could get the immediate help she needed at the field hospital. “The community really depends on Fishermen’s,” Ms. Larson says.
Ms. Larson was a fan of the hospital long before her fall, however. She volunteered there for 26 years, serving on the hospital’s auxiliary board and working in the administration office and gift shop. “I’ve been in love with Fishermen’s since 1991,” she says. “The years I spent there were very important in my life. It’s nice to know it will still be there and that it is well taken care of.”
Her daughter, Robin Mearns, also has a long history with Fishermen’s. Ms. Mearns began working as a respiratory therapist at the hospital in 1980. She was on vacation, camping at Bahia Honda State Park in Big Pine Key, when she saw a newspaper notice that the hospital was hiring. She dug through her vacation clothes to find a skirt and blouse suitable for an interview, and was thrilled to get the job.
At 26, she put Minnesota’s cold winters behind her and moved to the Florida Keys. It was like paradise. Now 67, she is the hospital’s manager of cardio-pulmonary services. Over the years, she met the father of her children at the hospital, birthed her daughter there, and sought care there many times for family members, including her son, nephew, late father and grandmother, not to mention her mother.
“To me, this hasn’t just been a great employment experience. It has been part of my family’s life,” she says. “It has been part of the fabric of my life, of who I am. I don’t think there are many people who live in this community who haven’t been touched by Fishermen’s.”
Moving into the new building has been deeply meaningful to everyone who works there, she says. She describes it as “beautiful, exceptional,” and looks forward to the ceremonial grand opening on July 1. The ribbon-cutting ceremony will be live streamed on Fishermen’s Community Hospital Facebook page.
“This is very personal for me. It was emotional watching the old hospital being torn down. Then the groundbreaking for the new hospital, that was very emotional,” Ms. Mearns says. “We’ve been on an emotional roller coaster for quite a while. But from here on out, everything will be so positive. This is going to be so great for the community.”