Roy Key was in too much pain to come to the phone on Wednesday.
A week earlier, Hurricane Ian passed through Fort Myers, Florida, where it lives, leaving homes flooded, knocking out power and sewers, and disrupting water lines.
Key, an 87-year-old US Air Force veteran, takes morphine to cope with pain from a broken hip and fractured femur – the result of a fall in July – and a old shoulder injury from service. But the Lee County Veterans Affairs Clinic, where he normally receives care, suffered significant damage from the storm and remains closed.
This forced Key and his wife, Sara, to navigate bureaucracies in the VA healthcare system that they otherwise would not have had to deal with.
Sara said she was unable to reach Roy’s doctor after the storm, and that left Roy “missing two of the most important medications he’s on.” The second prescription, pregabalin, is for nerve pain.
On Wednesday, Sara said, Roy was “swaying in pain.” If he went too long without morphine, he could go into withdrawal.
For many residents of Lee County like the Keys, the hurricane upended nearly every facet of daily life. Although power to the Keys was restored on Wednesday, more than 134,000 homes and businesses were still without power as of Friday.
At least 128 people in Florida died from the storm, according to NBC News’ tally. Most deaths were attributed to drowning, but a few people died due to a lack of access to emergency medical services, according to the Florida Medical Examiners Commission.
At least nine hospitals lost access to running water last week, although it has been restored. Mary Mayhew, CEO of the Florida Hospital Association, said three hospitals in Lee and Charlotte counties had to close and evacuate patients. One remains closed.
At the same time, many hospitals are seeing an influx of new patients injured or whose condition has deteriorated due to the hurricane. And they are experiencing staff shortages.
“The issue that will persist for some time affecting health care in the region is the impact on staff,” Mayhew said. “We have many employees whose lives have been turned upside down, who have been displaced from their homes and are unable to work.”
Pharmacies also temporarily closed after the storm. Walgreens said 15 of its pharmacies in the Fort Myers and Fort Myers Beach areas were closed on Sept. 29, though all but one have reopened. CVS said 19 pharmacies in Fort Myers were closed on Sept. 28 but reopened days later.
Roy and Sara Key moved to Florida from Chattanooga, Tennessee, in April after their home was destroyed by a tornado. But Roy had not yet been properly registered as a veteran living in Florida before Ian struck, Sara said, so the VA deemed him inappropriate. This made it difficult to get his prescriptions at a Lee County VA pharmacy.
Sitting in the emergency room to get medication didn’t seem like an option for Roy, as the exertion could exacerbate his pain. (Mayhew said ER wait times “most definitely” increased because of the storm.)
Roy is also unable to drive; he uses a lift chair and a walker. Although her daughter lives nearby, her house was flooded, her two cars were destroyed, and her husband had a heart attack the night of the hurricane (he survived). The hardware store where her husband worked was also destroyed.
On Wednesday, Sara finally got a VA doctor in Tennessee to mail Roy some pregabalin.
In an attempt to get medical attention, the couple called DispatchHealth, a mobile service that treats patients at home in and around Fort Myers. Kelly McKenna, the nurse practitioner who visited the Keys through the service, said many people in the area have struggled to access medicine and health care since the storm.
DispatchHealth said it normally received about 35 calls a day before the storm, but the volume has since doubled.
Dr. Adam Perry, regional medical director for DispatchHealth, said the patients the company is currently seeing are around 80 years old, on average, and many are suffering from health issues exacerbated by storm-related power outages in the region. , transportation issues, or the pharmacy and health care provider. closures.
Perry said many households still don’t have running water or working sewer lines, and cell service in Fort Myers remains spotty.
“The pharmacies just opened the other day,” he said. “It’s very difficult to get things like imaging, outpatient services.”
However, DispatchHealth does not normally prescribe narcotics, so the company faced red tape trying to help Roy get a prescription for morphine.
After NBC News inquired about the Keys’ situation with the Department of Veterans Affairs, the department said staff would contact them. Hours later, Roy filled his morphine prescription at the VA’s Lee County Pharmacy, which remains open even though the clinic is closed.
Sara, on the other hand, has her own health issues: a history of acute heart failure. She, too, depends on medication, which her daughter was finally able to collect from a pharmacy on Wednesday.
“I wonder if I’m going to be alive the next day to help my husband or not,” Sara said.
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