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Hurricane Charley

He was at death's door, then Charley smashed it in

George Riggs was battling for his life in a Port Charlotte hospital. Then Charley came along to thicken the plot.

By LISA GREENE
Published August 17, 2004

ST. PETERSBURG - They told George Riggs he could die at any moment.

And that was before Hurricane Charley hit.

Riggs was rushed into intensive care at Bon Secours-St. Joseph Hospital in Port Charlotte on Thursday night, barely able to breathe and in constant pain. He remained there Friday as the hurricane tore through, shattering windows, tearing away the roof and forcing already sick patients to wonder whether the storm would kill them instead.

Riggs told his story Monday from his bed at St. Anthony's Hospital. He was one of dozens of patients transferred to Tampa Bay hospitals because those in Charley's path were so badly damaged.

St. Anthony's, Morton Plant Hospital, Edward White Hospital, Tampa General Hospital and Bayfront Medical Center were among those hosting patients either transferred or injured during the storm.

For Riggs, 59, it was his latest close call. He has survived bouts with cancer and a near-drowning in a rip tide. He counsels fellow cancer patients and quotes the 23rd Psalm to explain his escape from the water.

"I thought I'd get something new in my life," he joked. "I threw a hurricane in just to make it juicy."

But as Charley approached Port Charlotte, Riggs was in no shape to joke. A week earlier, he had hernia surgery, which caused blood clots that traveled to his lungs and threatened his life. Doctors started giving him heparin, a blood-thinning drug, and put him in intensive care.

He gasped for air and told his wife, Diane, what he would like her to do if he died.

Then she had to leave, to secure their home against the storm. When they thought about it later, they both teared up.

Afraid of flooding, hospital staffers moved Riggs and other ICU patients up to the fourth floor. No sooner were they settled into rooms when the first window broke. Nurses wheeled patients' beds into hallways.

Riggs looked over and saw his heparin bag begin to shake. Then his bed started to shake, and his ears popped. Windows crashed to pieces, one after another. Papers and debris flew through the hallway.

"I grabbed my nurse's hand and my Bible, and we prayed," he said.

The storm sounded like rolling thunder, then like a locomotive, then like a huge drum.

Then, with a sound he still can't describe, Riggs heard the roof give way. Water began to come through the ceiling, and tiles began to fall.

Riggs was too weak to move.

None of that was the worst part. For 37 years, he and Diane had always struggled through the worst times together. Now he didn't know where she was or whether she was safe.

It wasn't until Saturday that Diane, who spent the storm watching over an elderly neighbor, was able to send word that she was okay.

A few hours later, Riggs left the hospital in a caravan of ambulances headed for St. Petersburg.

As sick as he was, Riggs looked out the ambulance's back window as he left and knew how badly his town was battered.

"I couldn't recognize the neighborhoods," he said. "I had no idea where I was going ... it's one hell of a hellacious thing."

[Last modified August 17, 2004, 00:05:09]

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