For the second time in two years, Hennepin Healthcare and the Minneapolis Police Department are facing public backlash for the use of ketamine, this time over allegations that paramedics sent a man to intensive care for two days after needlessly injecting him with the powerful sedative.
The patient, Max Johnson, suffered a diabetic seizure on July 26, according to a Facebook post from his girlfriend, Abby Wulfing. Minneapolis police and Hennepin Healthcare paramedics responded to Wulfing’s 911 call and repeatedly pressed her on Johnson’s drug use, unconvinced of Wulfing’s explanation that low-blood sugar caused the seizure, according to the post. Experts and advocates called Johnson’s ordeal “stunning” and evident of a systemic problem despite calls for reform.
“This happened because Max is a 6’5” Black man,” wrote Wulfing, a therapist in Prior Lake. “My whiteness was not enough to save him from the Hennepin Healthcare EMS and MPD’s egregious racism and life-threatening decisions.”
Over the weekend, Rep. Mohamud Noor, DFL-Minneapolis, called for an investigation into the “disturbing” encounter.
“This strong sedative was administered even after repeated pleas by the man’s partner that he just needed sugar to stabilize his condition,” said Noor. “It is unacceptable that this man, who was experiencing a medical emergency, was given this dangerous drug that can result in life-threatening conditions — as it did in this case. An investigation must be opened immediately to determine why this drug was used instead of less dangerous stabilizing methods.”
Minneapolis police are investigating the incident internally, said spokesman John Elder.
“We have seen the social media discussion and Rep. Noor’s concerns about the care a patient received in our system,” Hennepin Healthcare spokeswoman Christine Hill said in a statement. “We do not discuss individual patient care publicly, but when a patient or family member has concerns we answer their questions about the medical decisions that were made.”
Johnson declined to comment beyond Wulfing’s post, which has been shared more than 10,000 times and reposted to other social media platforms.
The allegations come as Minneapolis police face widespread criticism of racial profiling following the death of George Floyd in police custody. They also come in the aftermath of a 2018 civil rights investigation that found paramedics sedated people in Minneapolis, sometimes at the urging of police, against the pleas of patients and in some cases without explaining why.
“It’s absolutely stunning to see this repeated again,” said Carl Elliott, a bioethicist at the University of Minnesota. “Did Hennepin learn nothing at all from the events of 2018? … Why would anyone believe what Hennepin executives say this time around?”
According to Wulfing’s post:
She woke up to find Johnson seizing and bleeding from the mouth. “I thought that this would be the worst moment of my life — little did I know that what ensued after I called 911 would be much more violent and traumatic.”
Wulfing told the operator and paramedics upon arrival that Johnson had Type-1 diabetes. Seven minutes later, EMS professionals injected Johnson with Glucagon, an emergency treatment for low blood sugar. Soon her small apartment was filled with paramedics, firefighters and at least five police officers, which she described collectively as “uniforms.”
“Uniforms that repeatedly asked me what drugs Max was on. Uniforms that said ‘I don’t want to search your apartment, I just need to know what he’s on.’ Uniforms that kept me in the corner of the apartment to ask me question after question.”
Paramedics sedated Johnson with Versed and ketamine, both sedatives used for severe agitation. “Because of the ketamine, Max was on a ventilator in the ICU for a tortuous 2 days where we could not visit him, talk to him, or advocate for him. It was hell.”
Wulfing likened the incident to the case of Elijah McClain, a 23-year-old Black man in Colorado who went into cardiac arrest and died after being sedated with ketamine. Wulfing said paramedics injected Johnson with 500 milligrams, the same dose as in the McClain case. “ATTEMPTED MURDER,” she wrote.
Wulfing said the medical director of the Department of Emergency Medicine at Hennepin Healthcare called her about the incident “and AGREED that this would not have happened if Max was White.”
In 2018, the Star Tribune obtained an unreleased draft report from Minneapolis civil rights investigators that detailed a pattern of police urging paramedics to sedate people when responding to emergency calls. The Star Tribune later reported that some of the patients sedated were enrolled in a drug trial without prior consent. In June 2019, an FDA inspection found the hospital system continued to conduct the sedative research for months after saying they’d suspended the study.
Minneapolis elected officials vowed to investigate the police role in these encounters, and Mayor Jacob Frey announced he’d secured a contract with Sally Yates, former Acting U.S. attorney general, to complete an exhaustive review. But the City Council canceled the investigation in its early stages, calling the contract too expensive. In her unfinished report, Yates lamented that “important questions will remain unanswered” regarding the role Minneapolis police officers play in recommending sedatives like ketamine.
Dr. Michael Carome, a medical expert for the consumer advocacy organization Public Citizen, said the description of Johnson’s case speaks to a systemic problem.
“We have an emergency medicine system that too often seems to involve significant police response,” said Carome. “And there’s this reflexive use of powerful sedatives.” If a patient is suffering from low-blood sugar, “the last thing that person needs is treatment with potent sedatives.”
In 2018, Public Citizen called for an investigation into whether Hennepin Healthcare’s ketamine research violated federal guidelines. A spokesman for the FDA declined to answer questions about the investigation.
Hill, of Hennepin Healthcare, said it’s “critical that we listen to the perspectives of people of color” on concerns over medical treatment.
“We see and acknowledge the data that shows huge disparities in health outcomes in Minnesota based on race,” Hill said. “We own this reality as a health system and are committed to working to ensure that health systems do not contribute to these harms.”