Paralyzed inmate testifies in lawsuit trial against jail medical provider
March 18, 2011
A 28-year-old North Fort Myers man broke down in tears Thursday as he told jurors how his pleas for help as he became paralyzed at the Lee County jail were repeatedly ignored.
“I just didn’t understand why it was taking so long ... to have someone examine me and make the call to take me to a hospital,” Brett Allen Fields Jr. told jurors in U.S. District Court in Fort Myers. “I just wanted help.”
Fields, a once-healthy construction worker, broke down and wiped tears as his mother, Toni Silvers, and girlfriend, Amanda Duhamel, sobbed nearby. Judge John Steele let attorneys Greg Lauer and Dion Cassata take a break with Fields as Silver and Duhamel consoled him.
Fields’ testimony came the third day of trial in his 2009 civil rights lawsuit against the jail’s medical provider, Tennessee-based Prison Health Services; Joseph A. Richards Jr., its former physician’s assistant; and nurse Bettie Joyce Allen, who retired.
Today, Steele will instruct jurors on the law, they will hear closing arguments from Lauer and defense attorney Gregg Toomey and then begin deliberations.
On Thursday, defense medical expert Dr. Arthur Fournier, University of Miami’s associate dean of community medicine, the only defense witness, testified Richards and Allen provided good care.
He said he was impressed with Allen’s empathy toward Fields when she’d opted to keep him in observation the morning of Aug. 9, 2007, until he could be seen by a doctor, rather than take him to an emergency room, where Allen said Fields would wait for care and tie up deputies.
As Fournier praised Allen, Silvers’ mouth opened in disbelief. Her son had called Allen rude and said she ignored his pleas to see a doctor.
Fields’ attorneys opted not to present their expert. The defense rested after Fournier.
Earlier, Fields told jurors how a spider bite became infected and how he’d stretched in late July to crack his back, a normal routine. But this time, he said it led to pain, numbness and weakness that spread through his lower body. Late on Aug. 7 or early Aug. 8, 2007, his spasms and pain worsened.
“I just couldn’t take it anymore,” he testified, adding he hit the emergency call button “probably 100 times,” as did a cellmate, but a nurse said he’d have to wait for a doctor.
“Throughout the night, I was asking for help. They continued to ignore me. They told me to stop pressing the button,” he said of deputies.
That morning, he collapsed after taking a shower. “They asked me to get up off the ground. I told them I couldn’t,” he testified, adding that a guard brought a wheelchair. He was wheeled to his cell, where he lay on the floor and waited to see Richards, the former jail’s physician assistant.
“It seemed like they were distracted, like they had better things to do with their time,” he testified, adding that he watched Richards go through files.
When Richards examined him, he tapped his legs, found no reflexes and prescribed Tylenol for muscle pain. Fields was wheeled to his cell.
“As guards and nurses went by, I was asking them to help me. I was trying to get their attention. ... I was very exhausted and tired,” he said.
Early the next morning, he crawled to the toilet and tried to urinate, which he hadn’t done in days. He felt sharp pain and he screamed for help.
He said nurse Allen came but had to wait 15 minutes for guards to unlock his cell. He said she was rude, forcefully pushed him over when he couldn’t roll, and yanked his pants down.
“She then proceeded to tell me I’m lying,” he said.
He begged to see a doctor or go to a hospital, but was dragged on a sheet to an observation cell next to the nurses’ station. At 10:30 a.m., he was seen by Dr. Noel Dominguez, the jail’s doctor, who told jurors Wednesday he didn’t know why no one told him about Fields earlier that day.
“He realized there was a serious problem and I needed a hospital,” Fields said, sobbing and adding that he’d been frightened. “I told him he saved my life. I told him how important it was that he took the time to just help me.”
Two hours later, he was taken to a hospital. Jurors heard no explanation for the delay or why records wrongly said he’d overdosed and was intoxicated.
Dr. Jaime Alvarez, the surgeon, took him seriously, he said, and operated. He told jurors Wednesday the outcome would have been better if he’d been able to operate sooner. Fields was discharged on his 25th birthday in late August — after learning how to get into and out of a wheelchair, use a catheter and urinate.
Throughout, Fields cried and dabbed tears, often pausing to compose himself. He told jurors he was determined to be normal, hated the stares, couldn’t afford physical therapy and worked on it with his girlfriend, who became a nurse. He learned to walk and bike, moving from wheelchair to walker, then braces, which prevent stumbling.
He took off his pants so jurors could see his skinny lower legs, then removed the braces, showing muscular upper legs and the lack of muscles below his knees. He walked for jurors, waddling, his gait spastic because he can’t feel the ground.
He was denied Medicaid, Medicare and Social Security disability. He was approved for disability income a year later after appealing. Fully disabled, he no longer works in construction and is often in pain. He cried as he described awakening to “excruciating pain” that can last days and he fears he’ll have to undergo amputation and use prosthetics. He sits to urinate because he’d lose control of bodily functions.
On cross-examination, Toomey showed jurors Fields wasn’t undergoing much medical care and didn’t earn much in the two years before he became paralyzed. Fields blamed the economy.
He was the ninth witness, testifying after a Prison Health Services representative ended Wednesday. Lauer used her to show PHS is a multimillion-dollar corporation, managing inmate care in 150 jails and prisons in 19 states.