Dying to Get Out

Some inmates tell horror stories about healthcare at the women's prison in Vandalia. Some didn't live to tell their tales.

Adds CMS' Dr. Louis Tripoli: "The nurse did not try to cover up or deny her error. She immediately took action to protect her patients. On the heels of this incident, during the review, we received numerous letters and comments from inmates in support of this nurse and her noted dedication to her patients."

As a result of the medicine mix-up, Kniest notes, CMS has obtained new packaging for drugs that look alike. "For some of the drugs that look too similar, they have decided not to use those at all and replaced them with a different dosage, so they're a different color, different size or different shape."

Polly Becker
The last time Stephanie Summers (seated) saw her sister Sara Ann Gilpin (left) and her daughter Beverly Walker (right) was in May 1998, three months before she died
The last time Stephanie Summers (seated) saw her sister Sara Ann Gilpin (left) and her daughter Beverly Walker (right) was in May 1998, three months before she died

Even before she started preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, Jean Sullivan was accustomed to drawing a crowd. As a child she was one half of the dancing Wynn Twins and performed at the Starlight Theater in Kansas City. When she and her sister got older, they were members of the Kansas City Chiefs' Chiefettes. Sullivan went to college and pursued a career in social work, but that was cut short seventeen years ago by a long illness, which turned out to be Lyme disease. While she was bed-ridden, Sullivan says, she was saved. She became a chaplain and volunteered in the Kansas City prisons, ministering to female inmates.

Her ongoing battle with Lyme disease -- which continues to require Sullivan to give herself daily doses of medication through a tube inserted in her chest -- meant she had to give up a full-time ministry. But then Crystal Smith died. Sullivan heard about the death from a Vandalia inmate and went to see the family. A few months later, Al'Deana Simmons, who lived in a Kansas City suburb, also died. Before long Sullivan had become involved in the prison-activist community.

That's how she came in contact with Vera Jones. The 51-year-old inmate, who'd been sent to Vandalia in 2000 to serve a twelve-year sentence for stealing, had been medically paroled late this past summer; Sullivan found her in a nursing home and alerted investigators from the Department of Justice.

While in prison, Jones had been exposed to tuberculosis. She told Sullivan and others that CMS doctors compelled her to take medicine to prevent the disease from taking hold. This past February, court records indicate, she was diagnosed with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. She blamed the TB medicine, and a lack of follow-up exams, for spurring her liver condition.

CMS disputes Jones' allegations but declines to discuss the specifics of her treatment. Addressing the situation generally, CMS' Dr. Louis Tripoli says that "while the medication for exposure to tuberculosis can have short-term effects on the liver, monitoring of the patient's symptoms and the liver's function can help to prevent any long-term side effects. Patients taking the medication are told to immediately report any potential symptoms that can be associated with the side effects of the medication. And, they are told to stop taking the medication immediately if they notice such symptoms."

Vera Jones died on September 8. On September 15, Sullivan attended her funeral.

A week later, Sullivan is on hand at Vandalia to pick up another inmate, Vicki McElroy, who has been granted a medical parole. Sullivan has come to give McElroy a ride to St. Louis and put her on a plane to her hometown of Seattle. McElroy has been in prison for fourteen years, serving time for robberies she committed with her ex-husband in Washington, Arkansas and Missouri. In 1995, while incarcerated in Washington, McElroy was diagnosed with hepatitis C and cirrhosis of the liver. A doctor there put her on medications to help stabilize her blood counts and control swelling, she says.

In 1999 McElroy was transferred to Missouri to do time for her robberies here. Her doctor at the Washington prison worked out a treatment plan and sent it along with her, but she says MDOC officials and CMS doctors refused to follow it: Her medications were confiscated, she says, her grievances ignored. "Their response is always, 'We've reviewed the grievance and find that there is nothing to support your claim and you're receiving adequate care,'" McElroy says.

In January a Portland, Oregon-based lawyer filed a federal civil-rights suit on McElroy's behalf against the Missouri Department of Corrections and CMS. The suit, pending in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Missouri, alleges that although McElroy's treatment plan was sent directly to CMS doctors, "Upon arrival in Missouri, plaintiff was immediately taken off her most critical medication.... As a result of being removed from the medication, plaintiff began experiencing swelling in the abdomen and stomach, bleeding from the nose and rectum, elevated ammonia levels which indicates onset of encephalopathic coma, and increased fatigue."

Alleging that McElroy "was denied her medication, regular review of her liver function tests, and monitoring of her ongoing deterioration," the suit goes on to claim that prison officials and CMS physicians were "deliberately indifferent to the serious, life-threatening medical needs of plaintiff including refusal to provide life-saving treatment and medication, refusal to recommend plaintiff for a transplant, falsifying medical records, assaulting plaintiff, and refusing to provide treatment which would ease her pain and suffering."

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