Florida Keys

After Irma blew off the roof, a hospital is rebuilding — with help of 8th-graders

Kim Gregory, far right, development manager at Fishermen's Community Hospital Foundation, visits with a group of Michigan schoolchildren via Skype on Tuesday, June 5, 2018.
Kim Gregory, far right, development manager at Fishermen's Community Hospital Foundation, visits with a group of Michigan schoolchildren via Skype on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. FLKEYSNEWS.COM

For a group of Michigan schoolchildren, the Florida Keys seems a world away.

But when they learned of the devastation that struck the Middle and Lower Keys during Hurricane Irma last September, eighth graders at Fowlerville Junior High School, about 40 miles northwest of Ann Arbor, scraped together money, including what they earned from household chores, to help a Keys hospital ruined by the storm.

They recently sent a $250 check to Fishermen's Community Hospital in Marathon, which is operating on a small campus made up of shipping containers and tents since Irma tore the roof off its building.

"They were bringing in pennies and nickels and dimes," said Kim Gregory, Fishermen's foundation manager, who lost her Marathon home to Irma when 22 inches of water filled her condominium.

"It's about the support and every dollar counts," Gregory said.

Hospital officials view letters from students at Fowlerville Junior High School in Michigan on Tuesday, June 5, 2018. An eighth-grade class at the school raised $250 and sent it to Fisherman's Community Hospital in Marathon to help it rebuild after Hurricane Irma. Gwen Filosa FLKEYSNEWS.COM

In the wake of Irma, Fishermen's, one of three hospitals in the Keys, reopened with a field hospital to serve as an emergency room for the community. The closest hospital is an hour north in Tavernier.

Baptist Health South Florida had just taken over Fishermen’s two months before Irma hit.

Baptist is losing $1 million a month operating Fishermen’s in tents and containers in the parking lot of the old facility, Fishermen's CEO Rick Freeburg told the Monroe County Commission recently.

Baptist is planning a $40 million hospital to replace the original 1962 building. But that could take two to three years to materialize. In the meantime, administrators plan to replace the field hospital with a 6,000-square-foot modular building on July 12.

"There will never be a lapse in medical care," said Baptist spokeswoman Georgi Morales Pipkin.

Marathon city leaders agreed to help fund the existing hospital operations at about $1.5 million a year by supporting a special taxing district from mile markers 40 through 63, or the Seven Mile Bridge through Conch Key.

County commissioners would have to approve the district and at least one city leader suggested putting the idea out to referendum instead.

The proposed tax would be $50 for every $100,000 of taxable value. So the owner of a home assessed at $300,000 would pay $150.

"It's all in the hands of the county," said Mark Senmartin, a Marathon council member. "We have no say in the matter. I think it should go to referendum. I think the people getting taxed should have a say in it. "

Senmartin supports the idea of a special taxing district. "I actually signed up with Baptist to be a donor. I donated some money to them. We should do a taxing district here."

The forthcoming modular hospital will be all inside so staff won't have to shuffle patients outside from department to department like they do now. Pipkin said it will be able to sustain Category 5 hurricane-strength winds. Irma struck the Keys as a Category 4 storm with winds of 140 mph.

The Michigan eighth graders joined several groups from across the nation that have donated money for the rebuilding effort.

Gregory struck up a conversation after Irma with the kids and their teacher, Kelli Thornton-Miller, that has continued for the past nine months. Gregory already knew Thornton-Miller and they had mutual friends.

The kids couldn't understand how a natural disaster could leave people homeless. Through pictures and posts on Facebook, they kept track of post-Irma Marathon.

The kids, who on Tuesday Skyped with Gregory for the first time, also wrote letters to Gregory.

"Hope you and your family can recover from the hurricane," one student wrote. Another simply printed, "Thank You. I'm sorry."

WLRN reporter Nancy Klingener contributed to this story.