After Erick Thomas collapsed in his Stillwater prison cell one evening last year, a nurse gave him a hasty examination and then wrote “Faker” in the prison’s nightly medical log. But when Thomas was rushed into emergency surgery at a St. Paul hospital the next morning, doctors found a near-fatal blood clot pressing on his spinal cord.
Now Thomas has sued the Minnesota Department of Corrections, alleging medical negligence that left him temporarily paralyzed and numb in half his body even today.
The suit, filed in Washington County, is the latest of several legal actions that accuse the Corrections Department of denying medical care to inmates. A 2012 Star Tribune investigation found that at least nine inmates had died since 2000 due to denial or delay of care, and more than 20 had suffered serious or critical injuries.
Since then, the department has paid more than $1.8 million in wrongful death and negligence cases — including a record $400,000 settlement in May to the family of a Rush City inmate who died in 2010 after being left alone in his cell while suffering a nightlong series of seizures.
“I thought they were trying to kill me,” Thomas said in an interview last year about the nurse’s performance and the subsequent decision by corrections officers not to call an ambulance during the night he spent, unable to move, on his cell floor. “No human being should be treated that way,” he said.
Corrections officials declined to comment, citing the pending litigation. At the time of last year’s incidents, they said inmates receive managed care much like other Minnesotans and medical services that meet the “community standard” of care required by federal law.
Thomas’ lawsuit describes a nightlong sequence of events that left him in agony and frustration. It alleges that on the February night in 2012, nurse Eleanor Fuller failed to document his inability to stand up or sit up in bed without assistance. In a brief progress note following her examination, just before her night shift ended, Fuller wrote that Thomas was “able to hold his head up” and that she “physically propped” him into a sitting position, according to the suit. Fuller had been cited for failing to provide proper medical care in a prior incident, according to a letter of discipline in her employment file.
The suit also says that at least one corrections officer on duty that night threatened to move Thomas into a segregation cell if he did not “quit playing” and get off his cell floor.
After his surgery, Thomas, 30, was diagnosed with Brown-Sequard Syndrome caused by extensive and prolonged compression of his spinal cord. The syndrome can damage the patient’s motor function and cause loss of vibration sense, fine touch, and pain and temperature sensation.
Following surgery, Thomas had to learn to walk again because nerve damage left the right side of his body completely numb. According to the lawsuit, after he completed physical rehabilitation and returned to his prison welding job, his right pant leg caught fire from a welding spark one day — but he did not feel the heat and “the fire burned all the way through his pants and long underwear before another inmate told him his leg was on fire.”
In another incident, Thomas cut his right foot without feeling it, then bled through his sock for an unknown period of time until he took his shoes off and noticed the blood, the suit alleges.
Thomas was convicted of dealing cocaine in Austin, Minn., in 2008 and is scheduled for release in 2018.
“The inmates in our jails and prisons are vulnerable, by law and by definition,” Thomas’ attorney, Steven Meshbesher, said in an interview. “Their health and well-being are at the mercy of the corrections system. Despite the crimes they committed, their punishment must not extend to the denial of needed emergency treatment.”