A Matter of Life and Dearth

When the Cleveland Clinic closes, who will save lives on the barrier island?

They can snap off close-call medical emergency stories like cards from a deck, but the four gray-haired men lunching at Charley's Crab aren't playing cards. They're playing politics and telling stories. They figure their efforts could save the lives of the condo dwellers who populate the barrier island east of the Intracoastal Waterway in Fort Lauderdale. As presidents of sizable condominium kingdoms, the men at the table are also the harbingers of bad news. They predict that a few of their neighbors may die needlessly, starting in about 18 months.

To back up his claim, each community leader shares a personal story of midnight alarms or midday sprints to the only emergency room on the barrier island, the Cleveland Clinic.

Mark Hariton lives at Berkley South near his 83-year-old mother, who has taken the frantic ambulance ride to the clinic four times with her son by her side. She's doing just fine these days. Ray Wolowicz's wife made the ride only once when an aneurysm threatened her life. Ray was right there holding her hand all the way in the back of an ambulance. The couple flew past the high-rise condos facing the beach and slid into the slender drive marked "Emergency," just south of Oakland Park Boulevard. She remains alive and well these days, too.

Bob Rozema took the same gut-wrenching ride with his wife. But when Bob quietly suggested to EMS medics they travel to his doctor's resident hospital off the barrier island, the medics took one look at her and said no, faster is better, five or ten minutes could make a difference. The ambulance went straight south from the couple's condo on Galt Ocean Drive to the Clinic, sticking to A1A all the way. Bob's wife found herself in surgery minutes later and survived.

In every one of those cases and thousands more like them, nobody ever confronted an open drawbridge in the rush to reach a hospital or faced congested mainland traffic that can back up during rush hours.

Their good fortune will now change. For the first time in a quarter century, beach residents will no longer have speedy access to emergency services east of the bridges that connect them to the mainland. Cleveland Clinic owners say they will move their hospital to Weston in the summer of 2001, motivated by the ambition to expand and the potential big-bucks sale of their valuable property facing the beach.

After years of laissez-faire development allowed by city officials who relaxed codes restricting building size on the beach, prices for property there have shot up. They now range between $25 and $100 per square foot, according to realtors. The boom has created a market of which hospital officials will take advantage to pay for a medical campus of 500,000 square feet in Weston -- roughly the size of 160 four-bedroom homes.

Such progress and prosperity could kill somebody. Cleveland Clinic's departure will leave almost 30,000 beach residents and visitors to face a significantly longer ride to the nearest emergency room, which is Holy Cross Hospital at NE 47th Street and North Federal Highway. According to EMS officials, the ride will average five to ten minutes longer for most residents. If traffic is flowing. But ambulance rides off the island will inevitably face open drawbridges and traffic jams at some point in time. Any delay endangers lives, says Fort Lauderdale's EMS chief, Don DePetrillo.

More than a few lives, perhaps. About 300 people per month now arrive at the Cleveland Clinic emergency room in the back of EMS vehicles, roughly half of them stricken with life-threatening maladies. "What are you going to do when somebody has a heart attack during the boat parade, the bridges are up, and there's no emergency clinic here?" Hariton wonders. It's a question being asked by many who have already signed petitions distributed by the men seated around the table. Hariton and his corps of activists, Rozema, Wolowicz, and Gary Sieger, have decided to do something about that future heart attack before it happens.

Although the men carry influence as condo-association presidents, heretofore they have experienced only mixed success in pleas to state and local officials to keep the clinic in place. They were stood up just last week, for example, by State Rep. Tracy Stafford (D-Wilton Manors), whose district includes the beach. Stafford and Sen. Jim Scott (R-Fort Lauderdale) canceled a long-scheduled meeting with the men only hours before it was to take place. The meeting is rescheduled for May.

The activists want more than that and sooner than May. They want state regulators who determine how many hospital beds should exist in Florida communities to assign more beds to Broward County, and they think their state politicians should encourage the effort. Those beds, island residents hope, would be singled out for use by any hospital that would operate emergency services on the barrier island. Without the assigned beds, state law prohibits an emergency room.

State law also requires EMS personnel to transport victims only to an emergency room. Not to an "urgent care" clinic, a name that inspires a sarcastic belly laugh from Gary Sieger. "One thing they don't do there is urgent care the way you might think of it," he explains. "Don't ever make the mistake of driving somebody there who is in trouble." When representatives from both the Cleveland Clinic and Holy Cross Hospital tried to placate residents by announcing plans to open urgent care clinics on the barrier island, the activists decided to visit an urgent care clinic in Fort Lauderdale. What they discovered did not reassure them. If someone arrives complaining of chest pains, for example, "they call 911 just like anybody else," Hariton reports.

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